Sheryl Sandberg’s Trojan Horse

Sheryl SandbergHaving already read the book and heard the interviews, only two things caught me by surprise last Thursday when Sheryl Sanderg brought her Lean In roadshow to a theater in my neighborhood.

First was The Dress, a form-fitting little black number, at first glance unremarkable in this era of Corporate Alpha Female 2.0, where sexuality is proudly featured rather than downplayed—unremarkable, that is, until she turned her back and disclosed a gold-toned zipper running from top to bottom. (And before you get all “You-Wouldn’t-Be-Talking-About-What-She-Was-Wearing-If-She-Were-A-Man” on me, let me be clear: If Barack Obama showed up in a traditional suit with a contrasting zipper running down its back, I would remark upon it.) For me, this took the outfit from Seen This Before, to WTF. It seemed to be demanding some sort of response, though I’ve yet to figure out just what.

Second, and far more significant, was Sandberg’s pointed reference to how companies are quickly moving to adopt the Lean In model—which, depending on your perspective, could be either a great thing or a very ominous sign.

I’m of the second view. Let me explain why.

Women’s workplace initiatives of the sort that began to take root during the booming 90s—the period during which I practiced law in a large New York firm—focused on helping women balance motherhood and career. Being single with no kids, I always had my issues with this exclusive focus (I want to write a novel! What about flex-time for that?), but all in all, it was a big step in the right direction. There is more to life than work. We need to recognize that.

Enter Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon.

While purportedly respecting – even celebrating – the diverse choices women make as they balance family and career, Lean In’s core message is something very different. “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster,” writes former Facebook employee Kate Losse in her terrifically trenchant and insightful piece in Dissent “The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.”

You may think this is a great way to live or a terrible way to live (and research suggests that most women with young kids will go with the latter), but that’s not what primarily concerns me here.  Rather, my concern is that Sandberg’s prescription purports to be something that it is not – and in this guise is drawing support from women whose lives it’s just going to make harder.

The following exchange is instructive on this point.

Responding to an audience question about navigating both motherhood and overwhelming work demands, Sandberg essentially said that women need to do a better job setting expectations and boundaries, noting that she herself manages to make it home for dinner with her kids.

What she didn’t mention was this (from page 133):

“Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone. And unlike my job at Google, which was based almost exclusively in California, my Facebook role requires a lot of travel.”

The Lean In website currently lists dozens of business partners including financial institutions (American Express, Bank of America), big law firms (Skadden, Sidley Austin), consultants (McKinsey & Company), and other large businesses (Pfizer, AT&T). These institutions doubtless already have women’s and other diversity initiatives. What will the Lean In movement contribute – and what will it take away?

Women with full-time jobs and outside lives have very limited bandwidth. Here’s my, admittedly pessimistic, prognostication: The conversation about leaning in will slowly but surely supplant talk about on-site child care, work/life balance, and other “family friendly” policies. (As for the would-be novelists among us: As you were.)

I can’t help but think that Lean In offers a feminism tailor-made for our New Economy—one where the primary beneficiaries are companies, not women. Through the magic of Lean In, women’s initiative costs – poof! – transform into corporate profits. The Greeks left their model horse outside the gates of Troy and pretended to sail away. As for us, we have more clues than the Trojans did. We know who’s still hanging around.

Replica of the Trojan Horse at Troy, Turkey


Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

18 thoughts on “Sheryl Sandberg’s Trojan Horse

  1. Hi Amy, I realize I’ve had this tab open for months wanting to respond. I also haven’t read the book, just heard all the hype and promotion. I’m not inclined to do so after having spent literally decades in corporate America. I felt my dedication and enthusiasm start to wane midway through. In my experience it became impossible to get anything worthwhile accomplished. I don’t think the players have to change as much as the game does. A male persona has an easier time overlooking that whereas a female observes from the outside, maybe dips a toe in before retreating and saying – if I may borrow from the vernacular here – WTF. If we’re all more focused on getting ahead than on the goal at hand, where’s the teamwork? Thanks.

  2. A little late to this conversation, but I wanted to say that I’m distressed to read what you’re saying here. After finishing the book, I felt inspired because Sandberg is bringing this imperative of policy change back onto the table. She lays out the good old feminist line that women need to reach the top levels of corporations to effect policy changes. That sounds good. My take was that the whole “lean in” thing is to get enough women to reach critical mass at upper management levels and thereafter make changes. If you heard differently at her talks, then I am seriously discouraged.

  3. Totally and completely on point. Amy Gutman hits one right out of the park.

  4. I have been eyeing the Lean In posts and ads I have seen warily, because I always get concerned when I see a movement labeling itself as promoting equity in the workplace that does NOT, among other things, promote support for parental roles via improving access to childcare, flex time, and so forth. You have clearly stated most of the objections that had yet to coalesce in my thinking. I refuse to tear myself in two to benefit corporate America.

    • Thanks so much for reading, Elizabeth! I’m glad the piece helped clarify some things for you. Really appreciate the kind words.

  5. Thank you for perfectly articulating the problem I had when I first heard of her “fabulous” book- HOW is this model going to help anyone? All it does is promote more sacrifice on the part of employees (both make and female) toward the corporate goal of profits. All in all, her glorification of work-for-glory is nothing more than turning everyone into indentured servants. I am DONE with this BS. I did it for years and no amount of leaning-in in my male dominated industry is going to make one bit of difference in my career. What I finally figured out was that I had to make MYSELF a priority before allowing myself to be eaten up for somebody else’s dream. I managed to find a way to do my work outside the mainstream corporate model. Maybe I’ll never be rich or famous, BUT I will have deep relationships with memories to cherish with my loved ones.

    • Thanks, Kathryn! That is a kind of leaning in that makes perfect sense to me — leaning into the fullness of your life, close relationships with loved ones, the larger community.

  6. Very, very, VERY well-said. I would rather ‘lean out’ or opt out entirely than ‘Lean into’ this thankless 24/7 work culture with limited public and corporate policies to support me.

  7. Bravo, Amy! People need to call this out for the bs that it is.

    For every Sheryl Sandberg who can make it home for the nanny- or personal chef-cooked dinner with her kids, there are thousands of us who run home to throw something together for our family’s dinner in between kid activities, homework, and the demand to be “connected” to the office 24/7. Having my blackberry next to the stove used to be common place for me. I used to think that I was “on-call” more than others because of my chosen career path (IT), but as all those cool tech-y toys became common place, they just meant that everybody was expected to be available 24/7/365. If one pushes back from that, you are “leaning out” — that is you are opting for something less than completely committed or involved in your career. Definitely not a stance in favor of a balance between career and life outside of the job! At least that is what I’m getting from the discussions of Sandberg’s book (I haven’t read it). I think Sandberg must have a very savvy marketing team as she has managed to spin this quite well.

    And that dress with the zipper? I so wish you were making that part up. But I think you might be wrong about it demanding a response, at least a verbal one. Seems to me that the whole stereotypical Alpha Female 2.0 sexuality flaunt involves being prepared to condemn anybody who would respond with a defense of “How sexist! How anti-feminist! Why Alpha Female is just celebrating her femininity with fashion!” WTF indeed! I find it exhausting to just imagine what energy it must take to be Sheryl Sandberg. I’m sure it takes even more for someone who is striving to fit into the model of corporate leadership — hard-hitting exec; dedicated careerist; loving and involved (e.g., perfect) mother; hip, chic fashionista — she is promoting.

    Having it all is the biggest crock of stinky stuff that we can buy into.

    • I totally agree with your take on the dress — perhaps I should have described it more as a set-up, intentionally provoking the sort of response it will then condemn. (There was a fascinating piece in Jezebel talking about how Lena Dunham does this on Girls, though to my mind, in a far more interesting way.) As for the rest, many excellent points, including the exhaustion factor of keeping up that show. For me, it would be a recipe for misery . . .

  8. Well said! As I have been saying, a lot of this work-life balance discourse would go away if both men and women all just worked the reasonable hours of our parents’ generation. This work-until-you-drop stuff is counterproductive for everyone, not just women with kids. But with almost 8% unemployment, no one in the corporate world is going to be caught stepping on a bandwagon of “let’s all work a little less.” And for the Type As (like Sandberg) who run the world, putting in the hours and being available 24 hours a day remain the primary way you show “passion” and “excellence.” It was not so obvious to me until you pointed it out just how much she not responding to, but perpetuating, this work culture.

    • Thanks, Lisa! For a time, I was sort of joining the ranks of “Well, she’s just one person. Why is it such a big deal?” I hadn’t quite grasped the move to quickly scale the Lean In project via these corporate initiatives. (Though it shouldn’t come as any surprise.) Which is a whole different story–moves the project from personal choice to workplace norm . . .

  9. Amy,

    Perfect. Message and delivery both. This is the best commentary on the Lean In movement to date. I’d like to be the bookie who takes bets on how soon “Lean In” goes the way of “paradigm change”.

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