• Mel Butcher

What's Missed in Conversations about 'Lean In'

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

Headshot of Sheryl Sandberg

Here are some concepts that get lost in discussions critical of the book Lean In and its advice...

1. Nuance and Responsibilities

We need nuance in discussions and ideas on what women can make choices to do for themselves versus problems that should not be their responsibility- i.e. not putting yet more burden (such as additional emotional work) on women. In other words, I think we can recognize that your entire career success does not hinge on you "leaning in". Yes, there are plenty of steps women can take of their volition to contribute to their success, but there are also people in power whose behavior and influence is outside of their control.

There are a lot of unreasonable barriers for women in the workforce (especially women of color), and ways women will be treated unfairly. Those things are not the fault of women and should not be our responsibility.

But the next step for me is to ask myself, "how am I going to interact with that"? There will be times when leaning in isn't appropriate. But in many situations, particularly for people working in corporate America, there will be opportunity to do so.

As a woman in engineering, there have definitely been situations that I can't "fix", nor should it be my responsibility to do so. I cannot single-handedly change a company culture or even one manager's mindset of sexism or bias. In such an encounter, my choice becomes something like -- lean in, or find an avenue to walk away. I think part of maturing in general is developing the ability to recognize the times to walk away. When faced with such a decision, women's groups can be fantastic for getting advice when that choice seems grey.

2. Shun the Non-Believers

There was a great episode of the Akimbo podcast called "Shun the Non-Believers". I cannot overemphasize how much the episode's message helped me reframe my worldview. In it, Seth Godin explains that you can't make something that pleases everyone. The more a group likes your creation, the more you will get commentary from those who *don't like it.

In his words to the non-believers (whatever the thing is in question) that thing... "it's not for you."

One of the reasons hearing those words, "it's not for you," was so profound for me is because I had just had the experience of buying a different book (not Lean In) marketed at women. This particular book infuriated me. It made me want to vomit. I thought the book's content was such appalling advice that I paid to return it. I lost money and time to return ship this book. I felt personally responsible to ensure the book didn't end up in someone else's hands by, say, donating it to a library. And the book I'm referring to is a National best seller. I was offended, too, because the marketing "at women" made me feel upset that it didn't "work" for me. Yet, I am a woman...

Then, I heard this episode by Seth. The episode is targeted at creators and here's one snippet of what he said:

"When someone says my work insufferable. When someone says they violently disagree with a point I'm making... I can say to them - thank you. Thank you for taking the time to listen to this. Thank you for taking the time to care enough to work your way through it. Thank you especially for choosing to speak up in a way I'm *sure... you thought would be helpful. But, no, I'm not going to listen to that, because if I do, I'd make something else."

And so, I realized that book I returned... it's not for me. And (and this is the important part) - that is OK.

I didn't find the contents of Lean In applicable or feasible in its entirety. Indeed, one thing that offended me in it was the seeming assumption that women who don't already have children definitely want them. She wrote something to the effect of - single women also need time off if they don't have families because (basically) they need to have time to get out there and find their dream partners so they too can make their dream babies. Since I originally checked the book out from the library and don't have a hard copy on hand, I looked up the excerpt. Here it is:

"When I was in business school, I attended a Women in Consulting panel with three speakers: two married women with children and one single woman without children. After the married women spoke about how hard it was to balance their lives, the single woman interjected that she is tired of people not taking her need to have a life seriously. She felt that her colleagues were always rushing off to be with their families, leaving her to pick up the slack. She argued, "My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight - and this is just as legitimate as their kids' soccer game-because going to a party is the only way I might actually meet someone and start a family so I can have a soccer game to go to one day!" I often quote this story to make sure single employees know that they, too, have every right to a full life."

I'm sorry, what? The idea that the only thing a single woman like me should be "approved" to do by my colleagues in my free time outside work is search for a way to breed is highly offensive in so many ways-- not the least of which is the fact that I have a family. I have a family that I deserve to spend time with. Just because I didn't birth these humans myself doesn't mean that they aren't important parts of my life and pillars of my emotional well-being.

I am in the minority in not wanting children, and I don't need to throw out the whole book as worthless because of that one part, or even the highly privileged discussion about having a nanny. In those specific sections (targeted at would be mothers and would be executives with ++resources, respectively), I felt she was talking to specific people that weren't me.

And that is OK.

3. Context

Though I don't agree with everything Mrs. Sandberg has put out there, I am still grateful she used her privilege to spark some much needed conversations on the culture and challenges of women in workplaces.

In the end, I recommend the book to both men and women. I think there's something to learn from it, even if that something is articulating something you don't agree with.

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