Lean In, Lean Out: Sheryl Sandberg and Doing the Feminist Hokey Pokey

Lean In book cover

Last week I ordered Sheryl Sandberg‘s book, Lean In.  It wasn’t something I initially thought I would read since my reading time is limited and I really hate to waste it on these kinds of self-helpy memoir books.  But, after two weeks of endless posts, articles, news segments and Facebook updates from people I respected – and some I didn’t – I felt like I couldn’t really participate in a conversation about the Lean In debate without having read the book.

Though that doesn’t seem to have stopped most people.

And now, after reading about half of the book, it has become very clear that most people are taking sides and reposting articles they “agree” with even though they have no clue what is actually in the book.

First, I have only read half the book because I stopped.  I was bored.  Really, really bored.  If you have been paying attention to women’s issues, work/life balance, sexism, gender issues in education, took a women’s history class – anything! – then you will already know the issues laid out in Lean In.  And guess what, despite all the criticism being levied at Sheryl Sandberg for being elitist, having help, etc – she mentions all of it, almost apologizes for it – over and over again.  I don’t understand the anger about this.  She is the COO of one of the most successful technology companies of our time – she has help!  She has a husband who sees himself as a 50/50 partner.  SHOCKER.

And yes she went to Harvard.  Was she a legacy whose father bought her way in?  No, that would be true of some of our past U.S. Presidents, but she got in on merit.  She had a mentor – Larry Summers.  Can you imagine anything worse than a woman who was seen as hard-working and smart enough as to be chosen as a worthy mentee for Larry Summers?  For some people, I guess not.  Everyone I know who went to Harvard ended up with incredible access to high level connections in all areas – finance, the arts, medicine, etc. That is what makes Harvard, Harvard.  My good friend had Spike Lee as his screenwriting teacher – and then as his first boss.  He is now a major TV producer, writer and series creator.  He is crazy smart and talented.  He also had an incredible mentor.  Don’t like it?  Take it up with Harvard.

I have to be honest.  As the co-founder of a tech start-up I was hoping for real nitty-gritty business advice.  I suppose other women are reading this for the miracle solution to work/life balance.  One piece I read in Slate asked Sheryl Sandberg to be more specific about how she does it – how much her husband really helps, nannies – details!   I don’t need to see her monthly calendar to understand it must be crazy complicated, involve nannies, a personal assistant, her husband and more.  I don’t think anyone asked Bill Gates to see his schedule of how he did it, or Jack Welch, or any male CEO.  And trust me, their wives weren’t doing it all.

There is one way that I think Sheryl Sandberg has been “lucky.”  She is passionate about what she does, where she works and what she wants to do.  This week’s cover story in New York Magazine is all about feminist women Leaning Out.  This is nothing new either.  Some women don’t want to work 80 hours a week, travel non-stop, and devote themselves to a career.  They’d rather be home with their kids, especially early on, and are pretty okay knowing that they may not achieve their initial vision of corporate success.  I had one good friend who ran an equities division of a large investment bank before her daughter was born, and then for the first 3 years of her daughter’s life.  You don’t get more testosterone filled than equities trading.  Then one day when she was running out the door in the morning at 7am her daughter wrapped herself around my friend’s leg wailing and begging her not to go. The way she tells it, she peeled her daughter off of her leg and basically yelled at her out of frustration.  On the subway she felt terrible and had a moment  – an AHA moment I guess Oprah would call it – that her daughter just desperately wanted to be with her, and that she made her daughter feel bad about it.  She was in a position financially to quit her job – and she did.  And she didn’t want to have to apologize for it. She leaned in, then she jumped out.

Someday she may choose to lean back in.

That’s what many well-educated women are doing.  A hokey-pokey of leaning in, then leaning out, then jumping to the right, to the left, maybe falling on our asses, and leaning in again.

I will be giving Lean In to my ten year-old daughters to read.  To me it was all old hat and cliché.  I had my Lean In moments; particularly in college fighting it out as a film major when only 20% of students were female and there were only 2 female professors in the whole department (now the head of the department is a woman.)  I have no problem leaning in – running a company I have no choice but to lean in and sometimes use a megaphone.  But, I already see some of the doubt in my girls.

In preparation for parent teacher conferences one of my daughters had to do a self-evaluation and she wrote that one of the things she had to work on was not calling out.  During the conference her teacher told us that she never called out and wasn’t sure why my daughter wrote that.  Her teacher said she raises her hand, contributes great ideas and is always enthusiastic.  But somehow my daughter has started to feel bad that maybe she talks too much in class.  She just came up with this on her own.  As middle school approaches the last thing I want my daughter to do is start to hang back.

So, for that reason I’m all for leaning in, and Sheryl Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer and Hillary Clinton, and every other high-powered public woman who has to not just lean in but also bear the angry stares of millions of judgemental eyes.  And I hope my girls grab the hands of a couple more girls and pull them into the circle too.  That way their generation of young women can learn to do the dance together.

6 replies on “Lean In, Lean Out: Sheryl Sandberg and Doing the Feminist Hokey Pokey”

  1. I read your posts religiously and love them. I haven’t read the book yet (saving it for my upcoming vacation), however, I do feel that the most important thing women can do today is figure out what they want (and it’s ok to make different decisions at different points in life), go after what they want, feel good about the decision and most importantly never apologize to anyone for the choices you make. I see too many women apologize for making the decision to raise their kids full-time or apologizing for working full-time. And if you decide to be in the workforce, it’s ok not to strive for the C-suite. Don’t apologize for that either. With all the media coverage, I think my favorite “advice” Sheryl gives is that not everyone is going to like you. Especially if you say something that matters.

  2. I haven’t read the book but I’m doing some research for the post. I am a woman and enjoy being treated like one. I also like to have respect when I try to fit into a predominantly man’s world. I remember watching a documentary about Margaret Thatcher when she was trying to get elected to parliament and everyone’s biggest concerns were how she would be able to balance being a wife, mother, and politician. She basically said, it’s not for you to worry about.

    My favorite line? “I don’t think anyone asked Bill Gates to see his schedule of how he did it, or Jack Welch, or any male CEO.”

    1. Thanks Fadra. That Slate piece was so strange to me because it’s written by a young feminist writer and it was so reproachful. I can only imagine if Sheryl Sandberg did post her calendar people would be all over her for not truly balancing everything, or having a lot of hired help, etc. Can’t win.

  3. Hallelujah. I feel the same way and recently wrote a similar reaction on my blog, too. I’m all for anyone motivating women to rise up, which is all she’s really doing, even if there isn’t a lot of substance behind her words. And yes, I’ve fallen on my ass a few times since leaving my fulltime job and it’s not quite as easy as she describes to lean in once you lean out, although I never really leaned out either.

    1. I definitely leaned out when I was younger and never participated in class, etc. But not because I was a girl per se, I think it was more about being afraid of being wrong, which is something she talks about in her book as being much more a female thing. I’m heading over to read your post now!

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