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.
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  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.)
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  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!
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  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).
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    • 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.
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  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!
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    • 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.
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