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