Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

Sheryl SandbergThe offi­cial pub­li­ca­tion date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sand­berg tsunami approaches land­fall, its his­toric scope and impact are read­ily apparent.

Like any self-respecting trea­tise in the Inter­net age, Sandberg’s opus—currently  #1 on Amazon.com—has spawned wave upon wave of impas­sioned com­men­tary, crash­ing ashore in pre­dictable stages. First comes the announce­ment, then the cri­tique, then the back­lash against the cri­tique, then the meta con­ver­sa­tion about the con­ver­sa­tion. (For the record—and likely due to time con­straints and a prob­lem­atic Face­book habit–my own con­tri­bu­tions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)

My ini­tial plan to track Super­storm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was sim­ply too much com­ing in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a deci­sion to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been pay­ing atten­tion and read­ing quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a sin­gle ques­tion: Why aren’t we just tak­ing what we can use and for­get­ting about the rest?

A some­what baf­fled Paul Krug­man seemed to say as much this morn­ing on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s pre­scrip­tion is not for every­one. It seems to be quite help­ful for some. What is the big deal?

So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)

The more I think about it, the more I sus­pect that some of the debate’s feroc­ity stems from an atavis­tic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambi­tion often found its out­let in efforts to be the Good Girl, to ful­fill goals set by oth­ers, not to define our own. The suc­cess­ful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cul­ti­vated excel­lent lis­ten­ing skills and became a world-class mimic.  In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.

Put dif­fer­ently, per­haps one of the rea­sons we care so des­per­ately about what Sand­berg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think our­selves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alter­nately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t com­fort­able with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. We live in an age when the com­pet­ing voices are loud and many—and often far out­strip our capac­ity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intrigu­ingly, even Sand­berg her­self sounds famil­iar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Min­utes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this the­ory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a prob­lem not just for women but for pretty much every­one.  Another place it’s espe­cially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the after­math of the Great Recession.)

But there’s another rea­son that it’s a big deal, and it’s an impor­tant one: The dan­ger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppres­sive cud­gel. The dan­ger that women already struggling–and they are infi­nitely more numer­ous than Sand­berg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, prob­lems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sand­berg intended. But these things have a way of seep­ing in. The process is grad­ual. That Sand­berg and other uber achiev­ers have become the most vis­i­ble faces of women’s work­place issues is, as Car­olyn Edgar com­pellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.

Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Wal­ton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me per­son­ally, a book that would res­onate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Hor­ror, and Run the Other Way,’” she quipped. At the same time, she took the oppor­tu­nity to take the con­ver­sa­tion deeper—to ask friends and read­ers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in your­self, and in soci­ety) need to hap­pen to make that pos­si­ble?” she wrote on Facebook.

This is another kind of lean­ing in that I think we could use more of—a lean­ing into our own lives, to our own val­ues and needs. How do we decide whose advice to fol­low? Where do we look for guid­ance? Here, Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.

© 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

  1. Cheers, Amy. I haven’t been fol­low­ing the Sand­berg con­ver­sa­tion, but I’m a whole­hearted believer in the nuanced approach. We absolutely can only look to our­selves for our own right answers — a thought that has absolutely ter­ri­fied me at times, com­ing from the Good Girl par­a­digm, but also one that has rad­i­cally changed my life for the bet­ter. Great arti­cle, as always.
    Sarah recently posted…How to Ignite Ideas with your SpeechMy Profile

  2. Lean­ing in, drop­ping out, being side­lined, what­ever the catch phrase or sit­u­a­tion, things are bet­ter when women are involved and/or lead­ing. I haven’t read Sheryl’s book or seen Dee Dee Myers’s doc­u­men­tary, “What If Women Ruled The World” yet although I feel like I have with all the build up being raised. But I believe that no board meet­ing all the way down to a con­fer­ence call is not a worth­while endeavor with­out a diver­sity of ideas and styles. And I believe the great­est diver­sity is between female and male. Thanks for the discussion.

  3. I heartily agree about the cen­tral role of tem­pera­ment. Women who are out­stand­ing stu­dents are groomed by the school cul­ture for a high level of pro­fes­sional suc­cess, and they come to expect it. But I think once we leave school and enter the work world, tem­pera­ment plays a much big­ger role in how far we go. Tem­pera­ment deter­mines how much down time you need, how much pri­vacy, anonymity, inti­macy, con­nec­tion, QUIET (thank you, Susan Cain) and so forth. It per­tains to how much con­flict you can tol­er­ate, how much flack you can stand up to, how much crit­i­cism you can deal with. How much travel, change, input, dis­com­fort, and stress you can han­dle. And even­tu­ally it per­tains to what will be sus­tain­able for you, over the long haul, over the course of what we hope will be a long, use­ful, engaged and ful­fill­ing life.

    I see this as a life coach, as the mother of two (equally amaz­ing and vastly dif­fer­ent) adult daugh­ters, and as a work-driven woman myself – the cen­tral ques­tion really is, “What will sup­port THIS woman to thrive?”

    • I couldn’t agree with you more about all of this! Inci­den­tally, the extra­or­di­nary Susan Cain was a law school class­mate of mine. I think I’m actu­ally in her acknowl­edg­ments (extremely gen­er­ous of her, since the only pos­si­ble “con­tri­bu­tion” I can think of would be hav­ing had din­ner with her one night in Cam­bridge years back when she was in town doing research.)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Why Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the pointMy Profile

  4. Totally agree, Amy. When and how much to “lean in” depends com­pletely on what we’re doing, how much we like it, and what else is going on in our lives. For me, once i leaned OUT a little–which, iron­i­cally, i was able to do only when the book i wrote about the dif­fi­culty of jug­gling ambition/work and moth­er­hood, THe Bitch in the House, became a best­seller and made me enough money to have a choice in the matter–the rest of my life as a work­ing mother with two small kids and a career came together in a much bet­ter way. If you’re a woman with an amaz­ing job, an amaz­ing part­ner, healthy chil­dren, enough income to hire things out (and in) that you can’t afford to do/make your­self, and a per­son­al­ity that allows you to not mind rush­ing around 24/7, then by all means “lean in” once you have your kids. But if not–if your job is just a job instead of a deeply ful­fill­ing career, if your part­ner can’t or won’t do his half (or more), if your kids have any­thing that keeps them from being eas­ily handed off to a care­giver or to day­care (e.g., see the kids in the Melanie Thurnstrom’s excel­lent Times Mag­a­zine piece today with aller­gies that threaten their lives every day, kids who are lit­er­ally kept alive only with their moth­ers’ (and yes, i said MOTHERS on pur­pose) hypervigilance)…then the idea of “lean­ing in” at that point? Um, not so much. And this, to me, is why this issue is so provoca­tive. Vir­tu­ally every work­ing mother strug­gles with it–the guilt, the bal­ance, the intense accel­er­a­tion of every­thing once you have a kid, the lack, if you also work full-time, of down time. For some, it’s a life dilemma. There are no easy answers, and women who pre­tend to have them are either very naive, or just not being honest.

    • If you’re a woman with an amaz­ing job, an amaz­ing part­ner, healthy chil­dren, enough income to hire things out (and in) that you can’t afford to do/make your­self, and a per­son­al­ity that allows you to not mind rush­ing around 24/7, then by all means “lean in” once you have your kids.” < — Well put! I espe­cially appre­ci­ate the point about tem­pera­ment, which is a big issue for me, but for some rea­son, I hadn’t really been think­ing about in this con­text. As always, great to hear your thoughts!
      amy gut­man recently posted…Why Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the pointMy Profile

  5. Very wise con­clu­sion. I am not a big fan of “choice” dis­course (I’ve seen too many bright, ambi­tious, highly edu­cated women give up or drop out before they get to part­ner, or Man­ag­ing Direc­tor, to stay home, and I think they set back the cause for the rest of us with kids) but it is nev­er­the­less true that you have to be true to your­self. Once I rec­og­nized that I was never going to be a great sales­per­son and pre­ferred ana­lyt­i­cal work, my career forged ahead. That was being true to my own per­sonal style and tem­pera­ment. The thought of “lean­ing in” (haven’t read the book but I can only imag­ine it involves a lot of pep talk about being assertive and speak­ing up and “play­ing ball”) is kind of hor­ri­fy­ing to me. I see men in my orga­ni­za­tion advanc­ing faster than the women, and they all have dif­fer­ent per­sonal styles and val­ues (I also see a lot of deserv­ing men not get­ting ahead for no good rea­son, either).
    Lisa Maguire recently posted…Call­ing Doc­tor Hackenbush…My Profile

    • Thanks Lisa! As I said to Alle­gra (below), more and more I see the need for an explicit con­ver­sa­tion about how we inter­act with/consume advice–to talk (and think) about that in a delib­er­ate con­scious way. Peo­ple vary! Sit­u­a­tions vary! The advice-giver may not rec­og­nize this, but we’re in big trou­ble if *we* don’t.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Why Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the pointMy Profile

  6. that this ques­tion– what is right for me? is so help­ful. thanks for this lucid cri­tique.
    I was a class­mate of Sheryl’s at HBS. I found her smart, fair, and nice. Given the num­ber of true jerks who have made it big from my class — well, I’m thrilled that an actual nice per­son can and did make it big.

    And I didn’t find the con­cept of “lean in” right for me at the time the con­cept first came out because I was work­ing in toxic cul­tures where lean­ing in meant trav­el­ling faster down a path that made great sense for those I served but not for me. Now that I’m in health­ier envi­ron­ments where I can “lean in” I the advice fits bet­ter!
    Alle­gra Jor­dan recently posted…Hello world!My Profile

    • I love these obser­va­tions, Alle­gra! “Lean in” to tox­i­c­ity? Prob­a­bly not such a great idea! More and more I think we need a con­ver­sa­tion about how we inter­act with/consume advice–to think about that in a delib­er­ate con­scious way. As always, thanks for weigh­ing in.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Why Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the pointMy Profile

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