If men don't lean back, women can't lean in

I’ve been wanting to talk about men staying home ever since hearing from a listener last year. She wrote that she wouldn’t be able to do what she does without her husband staying at home with their little girl, that her job involves a lot of travel and that he’s been game for all her trips, and their international moves. Yet the reactions he gets form society are mixed: he’s had someone walk away from him at a party in DC after finding out what he did. Other women have asked her things like, ‘Oh, so your husband doesn’t want to work?’ My listener was sick of the assumptions everyone made about her other half – and grateful she could excel in her career because of him.

Christopher Persley, his wife Jenelle, and their daughter Camilla

Christopher Persley, his wife Jenelle, and their daughter Camilla

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cult of masculinity and what that means for both men and women. You could start with the worst and most obvious results of this, such as domestic and sexual violence, which is why organizations like Promundo exist. Because the cult of masculinity – what men feel they have to be to be a man – is the flipside of the stuff we talk about on The Broad Experience all the time. Society has long wanted women in a particular box, and so many of us women feel we need to live up to all those stereotypes. But men have their own societal expectations to live up to – and plenty of those come from women as well as men (see above). But this stereotype of the ‘real man’ harms both sexes. It keeps men putting in long hours at the office, living for work, measuring their worth by their roles as employee and provider rather than, say, as partner or father. Yet as one guest told me last year, not much will change for women at work until the workplace and society in general ‘lets men be fathers’ and accepts that not all men are burning to get to the top, just as many women aren’t.

Until more men are willing or able to lean back, there’s a limited number of spots for women who lean in.

Still, as Meg Jay said in one of my recent podcasts, it’s not acceptable for men to say what women often do – that they want to take a career break for kids, or that they want to stay at home altogether. Those expectations about male/female roles are deeply embedded in our psyches. Society still wants men to be go-getters above all else.

One of my guests on the latest show on men staying home, stay-at-home dad Christopher Persley, voiced some of this when he said when you interview for a job, it’s not done to act like you don’t want to get to the top. We’re expected to pretend, to play that awful ‘where do you want to be five years from now?’ game, which always made my heart sink when I was in a traditional workplace. I couldn’t say, “I have no idea” or, as he wanted to say, “I just want to be doing this job exceptionally well,” because that would not be considered thrusting enough for the modern workplace – especially if you’re a guy.

I suppose it’s a bit ironic that I’ve released this show on men just after International Women’s Day. But I’m with former guest Avivah Wittenberg-Cox: women as a group won’t progress unless gender roles in general blur – and we need to stop judging when they do.

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.