Sheryl Sandberg’s best selling book Lean In: Women. Work and the Will to Lead (2013) created a bit of a stir when it was first released, and the expression, ‘Lean In’ (at least for women) has moved into popular speech.
For those who haven’t read the book, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) begins her book by stating:
'The blunt truth is that men still run the world. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us all, women’s voices are not heard equally.' (p.5)
From her point of view, ‘a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.’ But how do we create this world? The main focus in the book is not what organisations should be doing, but what women can be doing for themselves – the ‘Lean In’ of the book title. Women, she observes, need to overcome their internalised messages and not wait for structural change.
My response differed from some of my feminist scholar colleagues, with their stinging critique of Sandberg's book. There are a few things about this book that I really liked.
Firstly, Sheryl takes gender inequality in the workplace seriously. Many women don’t – and there is still a great deal of denial. Read the stories of senior women interviewed in the press with an eye for what they say about being a senior woman. Many still claim they have not experienced discrimination, that being a woman is not relevant. They have made it on talent, some luck and the help of their mentors! And so, presumably, can everyone else. This is starting to change, but has done nothing to advance the cause of women. This book documents a great deal of gender research, complete with references. It is full of research that we should all know about and be talking about in the workplace.
Secondly, she voiced some things that really resonate with me. I share some of Sheryl’s frustration. After almost two decades of working with women with my long-time colleague Maggie Leavitt, developing and facilitating at last count, thirty-nine Leadership Development programs for women across a variety of sectors I have seen many examples of women leaning out. Sheryl’s examples rang true.
On the other hand I have also spent more than a decade working out – in theory and in practice – how to ensure that women’s leadership development doesn’t just become ‘fixing the women’ to fit in with current gendered norms and practices. Organisations do need to change – and that is the work I am engaged in. So I would be the last person to down play the importance of organisational structural and cultural change.
It is the either/or polarizing debate that I am tired of. It seems we can focus on the women OR the organization, but never both. Feminists, at least in this debate - want to focus on the organization- and Sheryl was accused of wanting to focus, unfairly, on the women. Much of the feminist critique focused on Sheryl’s privileged position and her lack of bigger picture analysis. In fact Nell Scovell (Sheryl’s rather too invisible co-author) is well acquainted with the research literature and does acknowledge the need for much more far reaching change than can be achieved by women on their own behalf. Organisations can and must do much more structurally and culturally to make it everyday practice for women to lean into their working lives.
But lets not toss the baby out with the bathwater. What can we gain from this popular interest and debate? I’ve used the title of this blog Lean In. You must be joking? as a workshop title with groups of women where we have explored this idea further. In what ways can we ‘Lean In’ and how can we collectively help each other to do so? This is an important exploration for women, one where we can examine some of our socialised and internalised messages and choose how we might wish to revise or discard them. Leaning in, for women at work, is an important piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed. As Sheryl points out, this is change we as women can have control over, and we can do it now.
But I don’t stop there. We cannot restrict our response to examining women in the workplace. Men, and their role in the private sphere also deserve our scrutiny. It is men ‘leaning out’ in the domestic sphere that is the opposite side of the coin to women ‘leaning out’ at work. And it is the greedy institutions that our organisations have become that makes ‘leaning in’ at both work and home virtually impossible. When men ‘lean in’ in the private sphere, with all the community, caring and domestic responsibilities this entails, this will certainly enable women to ‘lean in’ at work. I would like to write a best selling book, the partner book to Sheryl’s, with the title Lean In: Men, Home and the Will to 'Care'. The title doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but I'm working on it. Suggestions welcome.