Lean On Me

Guess who had the geekiest, hottest ticket in DC last Thursday night? I will give you a hint: it was me. That’s right, I saw the lovely Mee-chele Norris from NPR have a heart-to-heart with Sheryl Sandberg about Sandberg’s “sort of manifesto,” Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Spoiler alert: there was no Tory-Burch-briefcase-throwing, but since it was a room full of women, there was lots of hysteria, crying, and talking about hair. Obvs.

Sandberg’s message was mostly noncontroversial: women (and men, too, but esp. women) need to recognize the stereotypes we have about ourselves and our abilities, stop selling ourselves short, speak up, and expect equal treatment in whatever we do. I had seen her TED talk so I knew Sandberg would be engaging and interesting – and she was. Her responses to questions were well-rehearsed, and she described several entertaining anecdotes from her book (which, for the record, I haven’t read yet – I find that criticizing is way easier when you’re not tied to things like “facts,” am I right?!). It all felt a little canned and routine, but hey, she was on stop number five of a book tour and had her spiel down. It didn’t bother me, but she was much more believable when she dropped the “fake sincerity,” as one of my friends described it. Also, one of my other friends might have described her presentation as being like “Tammy Faye Baker televangelism.” And she did not mean that as a compliment about her passion and bold eye make-up.

There has been a lot of criticism about Sandberg’s message being inapplicable to normal women – you know, those slacker women who didn’t get two degrees from Harvard and don’t have an outrageously impressive resume. That criticism doesn’t resonate with me. She is brilliant and dynamic, and has taken risks and worked hard for her success, and I don’t think she should be discounted for that. But I did feel like she was out of touch for a different reason: she presented a lot of the issues that my lady colleagues and I have talked about for nearly a decade now as if they were new, and as if women hadn’t been wrestling with them before Lean In. Which is just blatantly untrue, at least in my circle. The way she described the problems women face wasn’t surprising to me at all. Don’t we all know that women often earn less than men because we just don’t ask? And don’t we all know that men who are aggressive are seen as leaders, while equally aggressive women are seen as bossy or bitchy? Don’t we all know that women often downplay their achievements, while men are more likely to bask in the glory of theirs?

But I guess her point is that while the women who have experienced these things – who have been called sweetheart or girl in a room full of male colleagues, who have been the only woman lawyer in a huge deposition and asked, “Are you the court reporter?”, who have been told by male supervisors that we can’t have lunch together at a bar because it will make people suspicious – need to make the shift from just talking to one another about it to talking to the world about it. And demanding better.

But I think with Lean In, Sandberg is presenting an over-simplified solution to an extremely complex problem. Two women who asked questions (questions that Sandberg largely dodged) got to the heart of my frustrations with her message.

First frustration: a feisty senior member of the audience (who was accessorized with some serious green jewelry) got up to the mic and introduced herself as an “original feminist.” And I believed her. Just the sound of her voice made me want to rip off my bra and burn it. She said Sandberg’s message was “fine,” but in her many years as an attorney in DC she had seen thousands of impoverished women who didn’t stand a chance of getting out of their circumstances just by “leaning in” and asserting themselves – what they need is meaningful legislation and public policy that helps them just get on the ladder, much less climb those last few rungs. The audience cheered for the green-bejeweled-feminist. Sandberg responded that she supports policies to even the playing field, but that “public policy on its own isn’t enough.”

And this is when it got realz.

Sandberg cited Scandinavia as an example of why we can’t rely on public policy to create equality. Apparently Scandinavia has enacted super progressive women’s rights laws, and yet, only 1% of its corporations are run by women. Persuasive, right? WELL, the green bejeweled woman immediately threw some Scandinavia stats RIGHT BACK AT HER – something about, “Well, yes, but that is balanced by Scandinavia’s legislative quota system, which requires significant female membership on all boards.” What the WHAT? Who can just spontaneously throw out facts about Scandinavian gender quota systems? That original feminist lady, that’s who. Sandberg recovered nicely from the Scandinavia smackdown and stood by her response – what she is doing is a complement to necessary changes in public policies and legislation, and isn’t the entire solution. (She also referenced leanin.org for the, oh, 4,000th time right about here.)

Second frustration: another woman stood at the mic and basically told my life story (minus the irrational fear of opossums and obsession with celebrity gossip). Her question was something along the lines of: how am I supposed to “lean in” at a job that is sucking the freaking life out of me, and also, why would I want to? She was (shockingly) in corporate law at a big law firm, had two little kids, and said that her job required long hours and travel on short notice, and it wasn’t worth it to her to lean in and stick around to get a management position. A management position that would continue to suck the life out of her, with a slightly bigger paycheck and a significantly higher level of stress.

At this point, all of my BigLaw expat lady friends grabbed each other’s hands and wept, and then called out to invite her to join our sisterhood.

I was psyched to hear Sandberg’s answer to this one. I totally leaned in and was ready to get some wisdom dropped on me. And do you know what she said? Something along the lines of the best way to get the flexibility that you want and need is to be in management. And that in major corporations and big law firms, the CEOs and partners call the shots, and the underlings respond.

Um. First of all, I don’t even know how true it is that CEOs and partners have tons of flexibility – in any high-paying client services industry, there is always unpredictability and the need to immediately respond to your client’s requests and needs, no matter what your level. But even if it is true, what about the years and years of pain and daily sacrifice leading up to that? What about all that work that might land you in the corner office but leave you with nothing satisfying outside of that fancy office – no relationships, hobbies, kids, etc.? What if “leaning in” to the workplace means sacrificing your chance to travel, fall in love, get married, have kids, and just live your life? (Look here for an interesting take on that issue from Erin Callan, former Lehman CFO.) She had no real response for that.

Maybe she would say that until we get women in those management positions, things aren’t going to change for the better for women. So we need women to sacrifice and make it happen if we want things to change. I don’t know. But her response reminded me that while she’s getting everyone talking, her advice about “leaning in” isn’t the whole solution.

I think the best thing Sandberg is doing right now is getting people talking about feminism again, and giving me an excuse to go out for overpriced drinks with my lady friends. But she doesn’t speak for everyone and “leaning in” isn’t a cure all. Not even close. I’ve made my peace with Sandberg’s message by being grateful that she is bringing the discussion to a national audience, and especially to high-profile men who are in power positions. She has the access and the street cred to literally pick up the phone and call the old white dude CEOs of major companies and get them talking about how to get women leading, which is amazing. Because when I tried that, they all just hung up on me.

But I hope the discussion keeps going and involves even more women from different backgrounds and perspectives. Like that green bejeweled lady – she has some things to SAY, I just know it. If I can’t find her to interview for my next piece, I will at least try to post a picture of her jewelry. Or a picture of me burning my bra in solidarity with her. Look for a teeny, tiny puff of smoke, that will not signal that a new pope has been chosen, but will tell you that I have found some grrrrrrl power.

Holy Gallinippers

Tonight I’m going to see Sheryl Sandberg speak in downtown DC about her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I’m going with a group of women who are former colleagues, and who also happen to all be big law firm expats. I am a little nervous about the crowd at this event – I’m imagining hundreds of stressed out, overachieving women in the audience either asking insightful questions and cheering Ms. Sandberg on, OR berating her for being out of touch and throwing their Tory Burch briefcases at her. We’ll see. Either way, it will be nice to hear my lady friends’ thoughts on Sandberg’s advice, and to distract myself from THIS NEWS about shaggy-haired, monster mosquitoes invading Florida. They are called called gallinippers, and oh no, here comes a picture:


I do not live in Florida, or even close, but just knowing that these bugs exist is nearly debilitating. It is only a matter of time before they travel north and conspire with the wildlife in my backyard to terrorize me somehow.

Anywho, I will let you know how the Sandberg event goes. I’m secretly hoping for a confrontational showdown, but this is DC, where everyone is well-behaved and conservative. At least in public. So it probably won’t be too dramatic, unless a gallinipper gets in the room, in which case I am definitely going to make a scene.

Serenity Now

Ay dios mio, can’t we just give each other a break? I stumbled across this article last week and vomited in my mouth a little as I read it. It’s one of those mom stories that reads like it makes a non-controversial point, but at its core, is so judgy and mean. In a nutshell (for those of you who don’t want to read, which amen, sistah), the writer is calling out a mom who is sitting on a park bench and looking at her iPhone while her children play nearby. Her poor, poor children, who are desperate for their mother’s attention while they twirl around like a “beauty queen” and coo and wither away from total lack of attention.

But you know what? There are plenty of totally reasonable things that mom could be doing on her phone while her children play. For example, she could be:
1. Researching some awful diagnosis a sick family member just received.
2. Checking work emails on her phone so her kids can play in the park in the middle of the day.
3. Planning an amazing party or trip for her family.
4. Looking at porn.
5. Taking a goddamn break so she doesn’t spontaneously combust from exhaustion and stress.
6. Totally faking interest in her phone so she doesn’t have to talk to you about how beautiful it is to raise children.

Whatever she is doing, here is what I think: who the f cares. Unless her kids are attacking your kids, or hurting themselves, or peeing on the slide, then just calm yourself.

It seems like the god-awful, media-perpetuated “mommy wars” have cooled off a bit but I still hear moms talk smack about each other almost as much as I hear them support each other. Let’s all just be honest: we really have no idea what we are doing at any given moment. Right? We’re all just making our best guesses throughout the day, and are totally unsure about so many of our decisions, and deep down know that there is a massive amount of luck in raising well-adjusted, good kids. Instead of saying that, though, we bash each other’s choices to try to make ourselves comfortable with our own.

I try to be conscious about not judging other moms, but I have been so harsh on myself about my own choices. I tortured myself when I was a working mom, feeling constantly guilty about not spending enough time with my kids and imagining all the beautiful, thoughtful things I would do with them if only I was home. So now that I’m on the other side and have been a SAHM for a few months, I want to assure my working mom friends who feel conflicted: the way you parent probably isn’t going to change just because you stop working. For example, I used to see projects and recipes on Pinterest and other similarly evil websites when I was working, and think that if only I were home more, I would do them all. With a huge smile on my face, while wearing a lovely apron. And also, my kids would listen to me and seek out my wisdom and guidance, and I would suddenly be good at math.

But really, what has changed is that I do more stuff around the house (and I’m talking about the stuff that needs to get done, not optional stuff like baking holiday-themed after school snacks or ironing). I do some fun projects with the kids, but probably not much more than I used to, and I get to pick them up a little earlier from school. Also, I add flax seed to meals because in my head that seems like something a thoughtful SAHM does.

I think my kids are mostly happy to have me around for a few more hours every day, but it really hasn’t been a monumental change for them. For example, my son asked me the other day how my work was going. I asked him what he was talking about, and he said, “You know, your work, at the office I went to that one time, where I played on your computer and wrote FART really big on the screen.” Um. My normally very aware son, who can tell you exactly how many Thin Mints I have stashed in the freezer right now, had forgotten that I haven’t been working for the past seven months.

So my point is: let’s all calm down and give each other a break. The kids are fine and we’re doing OK. Working, not working, leaning in, reclining back, falling over – we’re all just trying our best to do a really hard job that doesn’t have any guidelines or guarantees, and the least the adults can do is be cool to each other.

And if you’re reading this post on your iPhone while your kids are playing nearby, and some woman is giving you the evil eye, it is not me. And you have my permission to totally ignore her and go right back to looking at porn reading about current events.

Hey Ladies

There are too many lady-related topics in the news these days and I am overwhelmed with all of the things to discuss, probably because I am a lady and my brain is not equipped to handle more than one thing at a time (unless it is shoes or nagging, obvs). So I have made a quick list – read this, and you will be up to speed on all lady-related current events.

1. So you know Seth MacFarlane? Turns out, it’s not just his cartoon characters who are kind of obnoxious. Yes, he has a sweet little baby face and cleans up nice, but he managed to spend four hours hosting the Oscars repeatedly making jokes about everyone, but especially women. For example, how women can’t let something go (I know, it’s SO annoying how the lady character in Zero Dark Thirty really wanted to find Osama Bin Laden, WTF is her problem?!), how ladies show their BOOBIES in movies (often award-winning, critically acclaimed movies, but whatever, BOOBIES!), and women are most desirable when they’re super young and skinny. It made for an entertaining and kind of uncomfortable show, but I prefer Seth’s misogynistic and racist comedy better when it’s coming out of a cartoon character’s mouth – it feels a little less consequential.

2. Sheryl Sandberg wants ladies to “lean in” to the workplace and then meet with each other weekly to talk about how awesome it is to “lean in” (read a discussion of her new book here). It’s a fine point, except that women have been freaking leaning in for decades now and there’s still a lot of bullshit in the workplace, and I don’t know a single working woman who wants to get together weekly with other ladies to talk about how awesome it is to work harder. And earn less than their male counterparts. How about while we’re all leaning in, she can “lean in” herself and stop using her platform to tell women how to sit and talk in the office, and instead, support meaningful legislation to level the playing field? I haven’t read her book yet, so I should probably calm down. Must be my hypersensitive lady emotions at work!

3. Marissa Mayer got rid of telecommuting at Yahoo!. This feels like a lady-related issue to me, maybe just because a lady (and brand new mom) made the decision, but also because telecommuting was a lifesaver when I was a working mom. I didn’t have to write off the whole day when my kids got sick, I could be connected while also digging out from a huge pile of laundry, and could avoid counterproductive face time with annoying managers (not that I ever had any, natch). And in the wake of this policy change, I’ve read tons of headlines studies about how telecommuting actually boosts employee productivity and satisfaction (this article discusses some studies). What is Marissa thinking with this move? Probably about shoes, that’s what. Ladies!

4. Sonia Sotomayor and her remarkable teeth shut down a racist federal prosecutor in a well-articulated and very public fashion, just because she could. As my mom would say, you go, girl.

5. Closer to home, my own little lady has taken to leaving me status updates around the house. I applaud her hard work and direct communication style, something that all future working women need. We did have a talk about potty words, however. And ways to use them more often, and in brighter colors.