Leaning Out—of This Fight

I am leaning in just a little as I write this. OK, I’m not. But I am feeling a little sick as I ponder the next unpleasant installment of the “mommy wars” that’s hurtling toward us.

This past Friday, The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor assembled the ingredients for yet another bitter and prolonged back-and-forth about women and work. At its center is Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, a new book that purports to show American women the way out of our relative powerlessness. In it, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, gives women advice on how to assume leadership roles by, among other things, understanding our strengths and reassessing how we hold our bodies in business meetings. On the other side of the ring, we have Anne Marie Slaughter, the Princeton Professor and former Obama Administration official, who with her viral “we can’t have it all” essay in The Atlantic this past summer, can serve as a foil to the first. Finally, critically, we have the media, who (myself included—so sorry) serve the essential and unfortunate role of stirring the pot. Let the battle begin!

Or not. Here’s wishing we can avert this particular conversation that will have little bearing on the issues most American women face. After all, the idea that these two incredibly powerful, wealthy, white professionals can represent the “dueling perspectives” of the majority of women is pretty silly.

First, there’s the problem that both have very similar messages. Even if Slaughter’s has been condensed into the statement that women can’t have it all, she’s been clear that this opinion is based on her own decision not to continue working 14 hours a day in a high-level State Department job while raising 12- and 14-year-old children. Her version of “opting out” involved returning to her gig as a tenured Princeton professor, while appearing regularly on TV, giving 40 to 50 speeches a year, being a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and writing regularly for other publications. Clearly Slaughter hasn’t come down against women’s leadership—or at least her own leadership.

Then there’s the unavoidable and uncomfortable fact that both women are the elite of the elite. Both have Harvard degrees (Slaughter also has Princeton and Oxford on her vita). Both have served in the highest echelons of government. (Sandberg followed Harvard’s Larry Summers to Clinton’s Treasury Department.) And while Sandberg is far richer than Slaughter—indeed, far richer than most anybody—both women have so much money, they can afford as much help as they need to facilitate their quests for leadership while also having children. This context makes for awkwardness when they use their own stories to guide the rest of us. Indeed, if American women were themselves a 100-page book that was divided into chapters based on economic standing, Slaughter and Sandberg would be on the same page. They’d probably be the same paragraph.

The distance between the vaunted worlds these women inhabit and the real one is comically vast—a fact that’s not lost on many of the women Sandberg is hoping will both read her book and join “lean-in circles.” Kantor describes these meetings, which Sandberg is organizing through Facebook, as her version of consciousness-raising groups. But with corporate launch partners that include American Express, Google, Sony, and Johnson & Johnson, they sound to me more like focus groups. Also, given the Facebook platform, one might reasonably wonder how participants’ information will be used.

Even if these circles are simply meant for sharing wisdom and encouragement, the idea of having working women sign up for required monthly meetings shows how little Sandberg may understand of their lives. As “Seh from Los Angeles” wryly suggests in the comment section of the Times: “Here's a thought, while I attend a lean in circle perhaps Ms. Sandberg can spring for child care and housecleaning while I work on becoming a superwoman.”

No doubt, Sandberg has a unique vantage point. She began her career at the World Bank, then moved on to McKinsey and Company, the Treasury Department and Google before being recruited by Mark Zuckerberg to the top job at Facebook. She’s clearly navigated these halls of power with aplomb. But it’s worth noting that she’s only ever worked in these halls. My guess is that her impressive perch atop the corporate world has much more to do with the fact that she started incredibly high up the professional ladder than with how she sat in her office chair while she was there.

It would be one thing if Lean In was being launched as a business book. The problem is that it’s being marketed as the solution for all American women—and, worse still, as an internal solution. As Alicia Keys summarizes in her blurb, “The key to opening some of life’s most difficult doors is already in our hands. Sheryl’s book reminds us that we can reach within ourselves to achieve greatness.”

Lean In isn't the first book to instruct women in how we might do better if we conducted ourselves better. There’s a whole literary genre devoted to telling women how to get ahead. We’ve been told we just need to “go for it!” We've been told that we shouldn’t sabotage ourselves, that we should behave like women in the workplace, that we should behave like men in the workplace, and that, if we have to cry at the office, we should do it outside. And no doubt we can all do something to improve our personal performance at work.

But the solution can’t be found by taking bold risks, believing in oneself, and marrying a helpful partner, as Sandberg advises in Lean In. Most women could do all these things and still not ever have a chance of making it into Sandberg’s stratosphere. Hell, they could walk to work on their high-heeled hands and still not get past the real obstacles to power.

We can’t solve American women’s economic or professional inequality by “reaching within” because that’s not where the problem lies. For most, the challenge isn’t lack of self-confidence, organizing skills, or even ambition, but the external conundrum of how to afford decent childcare while we’re at work; how to manage to stay home with our sick kids without losing our jobs; and how to spend even a little time with newborns without going broke. How anyone could tackle the subject of American women’s advancement without confronting these huge gaps in public policy is beyond me.

Whatever time we spend choosing between Team Sandberg and Team Slaughter is time not spent focusing on those real problems—and the real solutions to them.

Sheryl Sandberg told the Times she always thought she “would run a social movement.” But social movements aren’t “run” by corporate executives, or even authors. Social movements grow out of collective feeling. They emerge because people are angry about issues that affect them deeply, which is why it’s hard to imagine that Lean In will catch on.

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