Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Echidne Finally Leans In. On Sheryl Sandberg's book.

Running after the train that passed the station is my frequent and sad lot.  Now that I have finally read Sheryl Sandberg's (and Nell Scovell's) Lean In.  Women, Work, and The Will To Lead,  a very quick and easy read, the conversation has moved on to Margaret Thatcher's influence and other similar matters.

Better late than never, eh?  Two warnings:

First, I couldn't avoid reading a ton of criticisms and reviews of the book before I got my own claws on it.  That's bound to have an impact, if not for any other reason than for raising my expectations about both its message and how controversial it might be.

Second,  I have read a large cartload of self-help books for women at work over my lifetime, and thus I come to this particular book with a different history than most people might.  It's hard for me to ignore  that context, even when the context is irrelevant for those who don't have my history of reading.

The combined effect of those two warnings was to make me feel a bit deflated after reading the book.  It's not that different from many of its predecessor books, except for the fame and position of Sandberg.  All self-help books about women in the world of work are aimed at women who want to climb the corporate ladders, not at poor women holding those ladders up, and all such books skirt the issue of sexism or institutional constraints and focus on only what the woman herself can do.  All such books also give her strivings a happy ending.  The change in how I operated worked!  I got the corner office!  The only problem was me not acting correctly before!

Having said that, the book is also very good in parts.  Sandberg explicitly defines her market as the women who do have some power,  and she admits that this may not apply to poor women.  She also discusses institutional constraints and the need to affect the whole system of gender roles and expectations, and then states that this is not the goal of her book.   It has a narrower objective:  To make women aware of their internalized gender roles and in what way they serve to damage their ability to do well at work.

Her practical examples of how to ask for a raise, how the thing is rigged against women but why women still should persevere is useful and well sourced, and I learned a few things from that chapter.

Her discussion of the ways some women sabotage their careers in expectation of one day having children is also very important.  If ambitious women decide to refuse opportunities or challenges years before they even have children, just because one day they might have them, the career they sacrifice later on won't require much of a sacrifice after all those compromises.

Seeing all that spelled out was beneficial for me, because it highlighted a different side of the very common practice of women "preparing" themselves for the fact that they will be the hands-on caregivers for children one day.  But why sabotage the before-children part of your life, too?

I have noted that this can begin as early as the time when students decide on their majors at college, though it's also true that some jobs allow more flexibility for entry and re-exit than others.  Still, when that is not the case, what useful purpose does not taking risks in one's job serve, for those who can afford such risks, especially if there is a possibility of a soft landing if the risk fails?

Sandberg is also good at demanding men as fathers and as partners to step up to the plate, and not just to eat the dinner off it.  It's not possible for women to do it all.  That it is utterly impossible for any parent, mother or father,  to do what the top jobs in industries require is something Sandberg discusses much less than she should have.  She states that she is always available for her firm and that she goes back to work after coming home at the (gasp!) enormously early hour of 5.30 pm.

All that is ridiculous and preposterous and also probably quite unnecessary in real productivity terms.  It's a way of hazing among adults, a way of stating that one's blood and bones belong to the factory store, only this time the factory store pays you handsomely for that ownership.  And a way to tell the yes-men and yes-women of the corporation apart from the ones who might not be willing to go equally far in showing their obedience. 

This is the part of the book which rang most false to me, the part which required institutional criticism.  Today's expectations of working hours in the well-paid jobs are not sustainable, as a form of life with partners and children and aging parents and even rest and relaxation.  They simply are not, and it doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman.  If that's how you are expected to work, you will one day go home and wonder who those people sleeping there might be.

On the other hand, Sandberg also points out the need for mothers to let the fathers be real partners in childcare.  If the mother expects to be in total control of it, she will soon be left to do it on her own.  Sandberg's discussion of the way some women sabotage other women's careers at work is also good.  It's not really the Queen Bee syndrome that is work at here, I think (though some of that always will exist, as there are King Bees, too), but the Smurfette Principle:  There can be many Smurfs but one Smurfette is plenty.

What else did I like about the book?  The references.  Sandberg credits Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University for them, and they are extensive.  Indeed, one could do worse than read the references as a start of studying this whole problem.

And Sandberg's discussion of the importance of risk-taking.  She distinguishes between bad risks, the kinds which can cause a bare table at dinner or the loss of the house, and good risks, the kinds which really don't have a terrible downside but require perhaps a lateral move at work or taking a new job, and she argues that women are too hesitant to try the latter types of endeavors.

This links to the games more men play in the world of work, games which women may not have been taught.  For example, in journalism a rejection of an article doesn't have to mean anything more than the need to resubmit it to another site.  Women are more likely to regard such a rejection as a real judgement and to stop submitting that piece altogether, and women are also more likely to hold their own work to tougher standards than men seem to do, on average.  That internal judge should take a break and go to the beach.  Just have a look at some of the stuff that gets published (me, even!) and think of it as a game, at least in the first round of rejections.   If a sufficient number of rejections complain about the same problem, then fix it and submit again!

Then to the criticisms, which I hope are read as constructive.  Several other reviews have pointed out that Sandberg focuses on what individual women can do, not on the systemic inequities, and that can easily read as suggesting that individual solutions alone might work.  Sandberg herself states, however, that both approaches are needed at the same time.

In short, I wouldn't make that a strong criticism against this particular book.  Many different approaches are necessary, and the Lean In approach has the advantage of making some women, at least, think about these issues in a way which could empower them and improve their lives.  The need for positive thinking and activism can come in many disguises.

The criticism that the book is elitist is a valid one.  Sandberg belongs to the business elite of this country, and it's hard to see how she could have written a book with all those personal examples that such books seem to require without peppering the text with references which come across as elitist.

The whole focus of the book is on women who have careers, not dead-end jobs.  Books of this type do not get written for women (or men)  in dead-end jobs because such jobs offer very little individual power for those who work them.  You have no real negotiating power while applying for a counter-job at McDonald's, and you certainly cannot get away with crying at work there, as Sandberg relates she has done at Facebook.

On the other hand, the Introduction to the book states that Sandberg is aware of this, that her book is written for those women who do have some moving-room at work.  And it is possible that some of her messages would work in other types of jobs, too, such as the practical examples of how to frame a request in a way which is more likely to get it approved.

There is a sub-text to many of the criticisms of Sandberg's book from the elitist angle.  Women who have nannies and cleaning ladies and so on, in order to succeed at work, seem to be doing it on the backs of other women (though they are also the employers of those women), and since upper-class women already do better than the other women, why focus on ways to make them do even better?

Did you notice what I did in that paragraph?  I framed everything as the woman's duty so that Sandberg's husband wasn't mentioned at all!  It's Sheryl who exploits her nanny and her cleaning lady, because we ultimately think that it's Sheryl who is responsible for any children she and her husband have.

This may be a type of intersectionality, but it's one which looks at class across one gender, rather than looking at class across both genders or both genders across class.  Those cases ARE different.

Whether that nuance matters or not depends on your definition of feminism.  Whether there is any value to looking at the lives of already-privileged women also depends on your angle.  If your viewpoint is across social classes your conclusions are different than they are if your viewpoint is comparing men and women on the same social class rung.

Some of that may be too theoretical to matter to you.  The real question, of course, is how to get more books of this sort about the women at the bottom rungs and how to get that message out there as a form of Lean In or whatever the movement might be called.  And the other real question is whether it matters to poorer women and women of color to  have more women in positions of power if those women were not initially poor and/or non-white.  Note that I'm not answering that question because the answer can be difficult to fathom.

Structural activism is probably more important for women who don't have much power at work.  In that sense this book and most of the other self-help books are not relevant for those women.  Unionization might work much better for domestic workers, hotel cleaners and counter-staff at fast food restaurants.  Federal paid parental leave, subsidized health care and good annual vacations are part of the answer, too.

Then the criticism that the book focuses on women with children:  I don't hold the focus on mothers as a misplaced one, because the majority of women will be mothers, and all women are or have been viewed as "potential mothers."  Thus, our assumptions about who cares for children affect most, if not all women, at paid work.  They are the mutterings in the cultural background:  If I promote her, will she leave?  What will it cost my firm to cover for her maternity leave?

Whether Sandberg's focus on combining motherhood and work is excessive can be debated.  On the other hand,  she certainly lets the corporations and corporate cultures off far too easily.  That's what felt quite false in the book.  Your curmudgeony boss won't suddenly see the light and give you six months of paid maternity leave just because you learned to negotiate effectively,  unless you really are the brightest star in the night sky, and even then he or she will check on those lumens, to see if you truly shine.  And while the initial example in the book about getting nearby parking for pregnant women was a great introduction to Leaning In (ask for it!), the fact is that providing such parking is almost costless for the firm and increases their reputation.  If you ask for decent working hours for all workers, not just parents, you might be packing up your desk in no time.

Finally, I liked this take on why the book is not that meaningful for women of color:

For professional black women, the performances that they feel compelled to give are shaped by the ways intersections of race and gender isolate them and place them under greater scrutiny. As they take stock of their work environments and perceive colleagues’ stereotypes, beliefs, and preconceptions, these women learn that, like Michelle Obama, they must repackage themselves in ways that are more palatable to their white co-workers. As these colleagues’ goodwill and collegiality is necessary for advancement and occupational stability, black women professionals find themselves doing both surface acting and emotional labor in order to successfully integrate their work spaces.
Perhaps put in another way, Tressie points out that the advice on how to ask for a raise might not apply to professional black women, because the cultural mutterings for them are somewhat different from the cultural mutterings about professional white women.  The expected forms of behavior differ and hence what might work in "leaning in" would differ.  But Sandberg doesn't discuss that, and it's possible that the advice she gives in the book would not work.  It could be even counterproductive.