Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Lean In, Be Fearless

Ok, so we've all heard of Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In by now and many of us have read it.  If you haven't yet, in a nutshell, she's encouraging women to "lean in" to their careers by, among other things, reaching for opportunities, taking a seat at the table, raising expectations, managing fear of failure, and making "real partners" out of their spouses.  I first have to say, thank the Lord someone important is starting a public dialogue about working women's issues.  A big part of the reason I started a blog was to do that and it feels like the public conversation has recently exploded.  The book is not just for those who are striving for CEO status (forget all of the "Lean Back" or "Stand Straight" or whatever talk), you can take whatever you need from it.   

My greatest takeaway from the book was that we need to take personal ownership of our success and be fearless.  Fearless in setting goals, fearless in going after them and fearless in structuring our lives to have all of the things we want.  She sends this message mostly through a retelling of the internal struggles and insecurities she has overcome (that she believes most women face).  If you think the biggest challenge to your career advancement tends to be you (how you set your goals, thinking you're not as capable as you are), then this book will be really helpful for you.  But if you are generally not afraid to sit at the table (proverbial and literal), but feel that your biggest challenges are instead institutional barriers and the ability to structure your career such that you still have a personal life, then you may find yourself wanting more from the book.  To her credit, she makes clear that it was not meant to be focused on the external, institutional issues, but I think as you read you still hope it may be.  At least I did.  I don't really feel stifled by most of the self-limitations that Sandberg discussed.  Not that I'm always confident, or speak up as much as I should or am immune to wanting to be liked, I just don't feel that limited by those things.  To me, it's not just about the "faults" women should improve upon and the personal choices we have to be really careful about when making ("choose the right guy" being one of her examples, oof), it's more about the faults we have institutionally and as a society that make it difficult for women AND men to live and work to the greatest of their abilities.  I don't believe that blindly hoping that pioneering women who reach the top will change the rules is enough (See my post about Marissa Mayer -- and btw I utterly disagree with Sandberg's opinion that knocking Mayer's latest decisions is in itself anti-feminist, nice try defending your friend).  

That said, I do not discount the research that suggests that women negotiate salaries less, are less likely to ask for promotions, etc, but let's think about why that may be.  Is it because we inherently underestimate our abilities?  Maybe.  But I think Sandberg hit the nail on the head when she said that women "leave before they leave".  That is, women might be afraid that aggressively going after a promotion will mean that if they get it, their superiors will be unwilling to give them flexibility or time off in the next 5 years when they may start a family.  Or maybe they are reluctant to start down a particular career path around child-bearing/rearing years because they are unsure of how their life will be affected.  Sandberg says to put those concerns out of your head and keep your foot on the gas pedal until you absolutely have to slow down.  I don't find that to be very realistic.  The truth is, you do often have to plan ahead and make choices before you start a family.  For example, if you are a physician, you might have to pick a specialty in medical school, and perhaps you choose a specialty that has more predictable hours knowing that in the future that will be more suited to family life.  Or if you are a lawyer working at a big firm like I did, you may choose to take a great in-house opportunity when it comes rather than slave for 10 years on the partner track only to realize you don't actually want the partner lifestyle and are now overqualified for many in-house jobs.  There is often a "right" time to make career choices, and depending on your career it might come before you establish a family.  I think that if you keep your foot on the gas like Sandberg suggests, you may end up so invested down a particular path that you give up on some of the things you thought were important before.  I think if, institutionally and as a society, companies made it easier for their employees to give 110% even if they have kids or other external responsibilities, it would help people stay in the game.  If you knew that getting that promotion would not meaningfully affect your ability to have a balanced personal life, wouldn't you go for it no holds barred?  I have faith that most women - whether they doubt their abilities or lack assertiveness - would.  It's just not our reality, yet.  A good example of not being forced to leave before you want to leave is a friend of mine who was due to have a baby right when the state representative for whom she was working was running for state congress in Austin a few hours away from where she lived.  She let him know that she wanted to work on his campaign, but she and her new son couldn't realistically live hours away from her husband for 6 months.  The state representative let her work on the campaign remotely 2 days a week and she traveled to Austin for the other 3 days to make it work.  Though she probably would describe it now as some of the hardest months of her life, she was not only able to keep her job, but her boss is now a U.S. Congressman and she is one of his district directors.  Not being afraid to ask for what you need AND having a boss who values you enough to work with you and adjust as necessary is key. 

Sandberg also proposes that men should split household duties 50/50 for women to be able to optimize their careers.  But do you know of any families where this actually happens?  I speculate that Sandberg and her husband don't really share all of their family's responsibilities, but instead rely on a great deal of outside help for the day-to-day and then share the rest.  And she's probably the one who manages that outside help.  It's all just a guess, but a good guess I think.  Even if husbands pitch in with housework/childcare, women still tend to do more (they do 2/3 of it, say the stats) and also tend to be the primary planner of the family's lives (managing kids' schools/extracurriculars, planning vacations/holidays/special events, ensuring a social life).  And I'd even venture to say that women generally prefer to be the master of the household in these ways.  They may care more about certain things than their husbands, hell they may even care more about their husbands than their husbands (hence the reason why I pack my husband's lunch every morning, he'd be fine w/ Arby's everyday).  I also think for the most part women are just better at multi-tasking work and home, so from an efficiency perspective it often makes more "sense" for women to have more home responsibilities.  These are obviously huge generalizations, but I think they ring true for many families.  I know moms who make more money than their husbands (and whose husbands are home a lot) who still opt for less demanding jobs after kids so they can be more in the home.  Doesn't make economic sense, so what is it?  When I worked for a law firm, I knew several women who were married to other big firm lawyers (so they made similar salaries/had similar career potential) and when they had kids, it was the wives who went part-time, not their husbands.  Maybe women actually prefer that the home responsibilities not be split 50/50 even if in theory that seems fair.  I 100% agree that responsibilities have to be shared as much as possible and couples can strive to get better at that, I just think that ultimately women will always do more.  Maybe that means acknowledging that the working mom's situation is unique.  Maybe it means accepting that the gender wage gap partially represents different preferences and therefore may always exist.  It could mean a lot of things.  But calling for a 50/50 split in the majority of families who don't have a lot of outside help as an essential way for women to succeed just isn't that realistic to me.  (Btw, I caveat this with the fact that when I started my new job after maternity leave, my husband stayed home with our son for a few months while he studied for the bar, so of course I know it's possible for dads to step up when they need to.  I just don't think in most families' day-to-day lives it quite works out that way). 

So those were some of my thoughts.  Sandberg's book was a good reminder to not hold myself back and be more aware of things I may I do or think that could get in my own way. And as much as I didn't think I really needed the reminder, I realized half way through it that everytime I read the book in a public place, I'd subconciously set it down cover-down, as if it were embarassing to be reading about my interest in succeeding.  It's currently sitting on my desk, cover-up.

Would love to hear others' opinions on the book or any of these issues!


  1. I haven't read it yet but from excerpts etc. my main issue has been one you bring up. You can say, "I'll lean in, I'll take the job, blah blah blah." But somebody still has to pick up the kids, make dinner and generally be a parent. So you can't "lean in" without a good bit of planning and resources. And even with a husband's help, your schedules/life goals have to match up at the exact right time to make all this work. That's not always possible.

    1. Yep. I thought a lot of it seemed easier said than done. One of the parents still has to be "in charge", and I think that usually is the woman. Also, like you said, it's not always possible for the husband to take a back seat to the wife's career spikes and vice versa because they each have their own life goals (and their goals together as a family). There is a lot of compromise involved!