On not leaning in

June 4, 2014

I’ll say it straight up: I enjoyed Lean In. Before it came out I’d read New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s rather excoriating piece on Sheryl Sandberg’s women-and-work book, and, like a lot of other people who saw that article, I began to wonder what I was in for. Would this be some snobbish tome from a privileged billionaire who had no idea what it was like for women further down the ranks? In short, would Sandberg annoy me? Me, who’d been steadfastly putting out a show on women and the workplace for a year (to a then tiny audience) before this famous and well-connected Harvard MBA was published?

But on the whole, Sandberg failed to aggravate. OK, there were parts of the book that rankled a bit. Crying at work? It may be OK for Sheryl Sandberg to break down in front of her boss, but for people who are nowhere near the C-suite, it’s less so. We know, or at least fear, we’ll be judged: eyes will roll, and our reputations will suffer. I had a few other quibbles, but basically I thought her message was a good one to get out to millions of women who find themselves at a disadvantage in a made-for-men workplace.

But Avivah Wittenberg-Cox wants to know why, in the 21st century, women should have to lean in. “It worries me,” she says in my latest show, “Because it’s often interpreted as women should behave and become more like men. Whereas what I hear from leaders is they don’t want that.”

Avivah says it’s time companies leaned in instead – especially given that women are now 60% of university graduates all over the world. Rather than women altering their behavior to fit into corporate life, corporations should adapt themselves to the way women do things. 

Here are a few takeaways from our interview, which you can hear in full here:

  • Most male leaders she works with have no idea they’re not already doing everything they can for women at their office. The way they see it, if women aren’t exceling, they’re the problem. Avivah’s company alerts these guys to the differences between men and women – differences that mean women are less likely to thrive in a corporate environment designed by and for men.

  • She says the US is the worst culprit when it comes to framing the issue of women in the workplace, “as a women’s issue, run by women, for women, all about women.” This, she says, is a big mistake. There will be no sizeable jump in women in top roles unless men are allowed to be less ambitious. She is adamant that this issue is about ‘balance’, not about women.  Men must be able to care less about work if women are going to care more.

  • She wishes Sandberg had written the same book and called it ‘Companies Lean In’. “She would have had a hundred thousand times the men reading that book…she’d have had the same level of impact but on the right audience, and that would have been extraordinarily helpful at this time in history.”