Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Today, despite all of the gains we have made, neither men nor women have real choice.  Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don't have real choice.  And until men are fully respected for contributing inside the home, they don't have real choice either.  Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.  Only then can both men and women achieve their full potential.

In a lot of ways, Lean In is somewhat of a sequel to The Feminine Mystique.  Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, doesn't tackle as broad a scope as Friedan, preferring to focus on women's experiences and opportunities in corporate America, but she addresses and gives updates on many of the issues that Friedan explored in her classic.  On one hand, we've come a long way in the last fifty years.  I also appreciate that Sandberg recognizes that things are a lot worse in other countries and even for women in America who aren't the target audience of this book, which is clearly educated, middle to upper class women.  On the other hand, Sandberg says that "knowing things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better" and that "it is time to face the fact that the revolution has stalled."  She notes the disparities in the numbers of men and women leading countries and large companies, and exhorts us to push toward real equality, not just the promise of equality.

Sandberg's focus, unlike Friedan's, is less on society and more on women themselves.  She argues that many times women hold themselves back, refusing to take advantage of opportunities or contribute.  Sandberg exhorts women to "lean in," to sit at the main table and not take a chair at the side of the room, among other things.  She also argues that it totally makes sense for women to sit back and let men push for promotions or get raises.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Sandberg cites the Howard/Heidi study done at Harvard several years ago.  In the study, subjects were given the same description of a businessperson's career, strengths, weaknesses, personality, etc, but the name on some of the descriptions was Heidi and on the others it was Howard.  Despite the fact that the stories were identical in everything but the gender of the subject, the participants, both men and women, in the study found Howard more likeable than Heidi.  Heidi was seen as pushy, uncaring, and basically a bitch, while Howard was seen as driven and hard working.  (I was bothered by how reminiscent this was of the college student Friedan interviewed who said, "It's not too smart to be smart").  Sandberg gets into some amateur sociology and describes how women are expected to focus more on the community and the well being of others, while men are free to look out for themselves.  Given these expectations, is it any wonder that women don't lean in?

Sandberg provides advice, both on an individual level and on an institutional level.  On the individual level, the advice is basically be more like men.  In some cases her perspective is constructive; it's appropriate to tell women to have more self confidence and not to give up opportunities just because maybe, some day down the road, they'll want to have a family.  In other ways, I feel like she should be instructing men to be more like women, or at least advising both to stop doing some things.  For example, she relays an anecdote about an attorney friend who was much more conservative in her billing.  If she didn't feel like she was doing her best work, she'd discount the amount of time she'd spent, while men bill even when they just have a passing thought about a client while in the shower.  Sandberg argues that the men are more valuable to their firms and that therefore they will be more likely for advancement and that women should follow their lead.  As an attorney myself, I found her friend's practices much more ethical.

On the institutional level, her advice has made more progress, in part by pointing out inequalities and male privilege.  As much as this book is addressed to women trying to make their way in corporate America, it's also addressed to the men leading it, and it's already having an impact.  Cisco CEO John Chambers made headlines when he came out with a positive review.  "While I have always considered myself sensitive to and effective on gender issues in the workplace, my eyes were opened in new ways and I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade,” wrote Chambers. “After reading Lean In and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk...”  The failed aphorism notwithstanding, Chambers touches on a very important theme explored in this book.  A big step we need to take toward achieving true equality is for men and women both to recognize the barriers that women still have to overcome.  Sandberg even cites a study that shows people are even more likely to unconsciously prefer men over women when they think they are unbiased.  Hopefully Chambers's public reaction is a catalyst and a sign of things to come.

The male corporate leaders of America aren't the only men Lean In is for.  Sanberg also devotes a lot of pages emphasizing the importance of having a supportive partner.  Even though women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare, I do think this is an area in which we're improving.  

In the end, this actually is an area where consciousness raising can have a tangible, material effect, and I think Lean In does a good job of drawing attention to some important issues.

I am not going to devote a whole post to The Host, I just felt like I should explain myself a little.  I read an interview the other day in which Stephanie Meyer said that she was a feminist.  With so many female celebrities eschewing that label, I figured I should investigate.  I certainly wasn't going to read the Twilight books again, so I went with The Host instead (which, it turns out, was actually a lot better than the vampire ones.  Not super great, but a lot better).  My verdict is that while The Host doesn't have a lot of the traditional feminist themes you see female protagonist based media like Buffy, that doesn't make it anti-feminist, necessarily.  Sure, Wanderer/Melanie are primarily motivated by the men in their life/lives, but at least the book has a female protagonist who is honorable and heroic, plus the movie will pass the Bechdel test (two or more women in the movie that talk to each other about something other than a man.  It actually happens in a lot fewer movies than you'd think).  So not really a feminist manifesto, but not as dubious as the Twilight books and not as terrible a read, either.


R.M. Fiedler said...

These popped up in my news feeds this morning.

On the one hand, I have no problem with the idea that college is an ideal time to meet and date (because, for most people, it is the largest dating pool they are ever a part of). On the other hand, Patton indicates that women should not date someone less smart than them...meaning there are only two kinds of acceptable relationships: where the man is smarter, or where the man and woman are equally smart. I find this troubling because it denigrates women who choose to date men less smart than them.

Christopher said...

As a man who is not very smart, I agree with Randy.

billy said...

I heard about and skimmed Patton's editorial and rolled my eyes, thinking about it as the voice of a woman saying "my boys are the most specialest in the world, date them!" But I'm glad you brought it up because there are some interesting things at work here. Patton does throw out a bunch of tired feminine mystique tenets that should be (and as far as I can tell, mostly are) extinct, but she does stumble on a nugget of truth. "For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry," she writes. This is an argument that Sandberg, makes, too. Sandberg doesn't say that in order to be happy a woman has to get married (or to get married to a man, specifically), but she recognizes that it's pretty common, and not unfeminist, to fall in love and want to spend your life with someone. Given that, Sandberg emphasizes that it is very important to find a partner who is supportive and a true partner.

Patton takes this nugget that she happened upon and, for reasons that I imagine stem largely from her personal experience, misses the point. She has decided that the most important quality in a man is that he's smarter than you, because apparently women are uncomfortable being the smarter person in the relationship. Now, this may have been the case when Friedan wrote the Feminine Mystique, but only because women were trapped in the role of housewife and mother or because men would be insecure marrying someone smarter than they. I can imagine it'd be frustrating to have a CEO level intellect and watch your dumbass husband go to work every day, knowing that you could achieve much more. But today I imagine smart women who never had to deal with the pressures of the FM would value intelligence/bread winning ability as one of several positive attributes in a mate and would prefer a loving, kind, supportive husband to a brilliant husband who was controlling and didn't support or respect her career.

Brittany said...

I am uninterested in dating men who are significantly smarter than me or who are significantly less smart than me. There are a huge variety of things I would be pleasantly surprised to have in a partner (artistic ability, culinary prowess, an ability to learn languages, nautical knowledge, whatever), but would certainly not change my overall opinion of a man, but someone who was too far out of my own range in either direction would.

I was once on a first date with a man who repeatedly told me that it was so exciting to be on a date with an intelligent girl because normally he dates dumb girls, and that alone was enough to make me not want to go on another date with him. The idea that his 'type' is stupid girls (or that he dates smart girls but thinks they're stupid) was an incredible turn off. As a teacher I work with all kinds of kids from just above intellectually disabled to really brilliant, and they all have good qualities that have nothing to do with their smartness, but when I think about the person I want to share a bank account with, travel around the world with, possibly raise children with - I need someone on my level.

And again - someone WAY smarter is just as unappealing.

Do you three really think that all other things being equal, you'd pick a dumb girl/guy just as happily as you'd pick a smart one (which, since we're all book nerds, I'm putting us all in the at-least-above-average category of intelligence).

Brittany said...

Also, I really liked the Host and thought that it captured a lot of post-colonial themes really well in a young adult format. What obligations and considerations do colonizers need to have about the people that they're colonizing? How do we determine the value of different species/cultures? And most importantly, what is going to happen when aliens land on earth?