Sheryl Sandberg and the politics of leaning in

February 22, 2013

I was up earlier than usual today and read this New York Times piece on Sheryl Sandberg's plans to revolutionize women's career progress at about 7a.m. It already had several comments then. As I type, seven hours later, the count is up to 500.

Sandberg really gets people talking.

She's also beginning to polarize people. I'll be honest: most of the reason I started The Broad Experience is because, like Sandberg, I believe women are really good at sabotaging ourselves at work without even realizing it. I have done this time after time. I made career mistakes that I had no idea were mistakes. If you'd told me even five years ago that talking up my achievements at work was a good idea, I would have been horrified. How vulgar! Good work, I had always been told, spoke for itself. There was no need to hammer on about how wonderful you were. 

Wrong. If you don't underline your achievements to the people who matter, don't be surprised if you're passed over for promotions. I believe everything Sandberg says about 'leaning in', speaking out, etc. In short, I am a recovering career mess. But she makes some people's blood boil. For one thing, all this advice is coming from the mouth of a multi-millionaire who has tons of household help and had an elite education. What about 'earthbound women', as the Times' writer, Jodi Kantor, refers to us? The other thing is that many are angry that Sandberg appears not to address the other side of women's (lack of) progress in the workplace: government policies, corporations themselves and the existing old boys' clubs that would like nothing more than for everything to stay the same. Thre are lots of comments on the Times piece by women who claim they've done everything right but still can't get where they want to be. This piece by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in the Harvard Business Review takes a frustrated swipe at Sandberg.

I can see how Sandberg's 'Lean In circles' could also raise eyebrows. Here's a quote from the Times article:

...“Lean In Circles,” as she calls them, in which women can share experiences and follow a Sandberg-crafted curriculum for career success. (First assignment: a video on how to command more authority at work by changing how they speak and even sit.)

Having reported on the way women speak, I know how polarizing anything to do with changing ourselves can be. As far as many women are concerned, women should not have to change a thing about ourselves: society, instead, needs to get used to us. Despite being 51 percent of the population, we're still not society's default setting. Men and male-run companies, these critics say, need to adapt to the female way of thinking and acting. (But that quote reminds me to book Harvard's Amy Cuddy for the podcast as soon as possible.)

I disagree. Yes, it's aggravating and unnatural to have to adapt ourselves to the male way of doing business. But business has been male for hundreds of years. It will not change overnight, no matter how much 'soft skills' (bleurgh) are said to be a vital part of our new world. We can't just sit here and hope the male mindset will suddenly alter and adapt itself to us. The business world will become more feminized, but only when more of us are running it. For more on making male management more aware and appreciative of the way women *tend* to think and do things, check out Caroline Turner's work at Difference Works. She appears in episode 9 of the show on ambition and power.

I have tried to book Sandberg for The Broad Experience, but this week her publisher declined my request for an interview, claiming her slate was full. So instead I plan to convene a panel of women to discuss the book and use that debate as a podcast in itself.

Another aspect of this, of course, is that so many women are out there juggling away like crazy but are virtually unaware of the Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter debates. They don't have time to be aware of them. They're just trying to get through their days, dysfunction and all.