Six Degrees of Sheryl Sandberg

I was at a conference for women academics recently and it seemed like every other speaker mentioned Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.

I am happy that Lean In exists. Sandberg has a unique platform with which to share things like the prodigious amount of research demonstrating that women face additional barriers and obstacles in the workplace because of their gender. The first response to assertions that bias and discrimination continue to exist is usually denial followed by demands for proof.

Boy is there a lot of proof.

Studies have repeatedly shown that women are still affected by evaluation bias. Cultural expectations of what women want, how they will behave and the choices that they will make are deeply embedded for both men and women. In light of the evidence and the cultural lens, the question becomes how to raise awareness and work for change. I generally see these efforts fall into two categories: fix the men or fix the women. Sandburg is in the fix the women camp.

Her premise is that women “lean back” based on speculation about future states like if I stay on this trajectory it will make it easier to have children down the line. Therefore she is encouraging women to “lean in” to their choices in the present so they don’t sell themselves short. I agree wholeheartedly. I have a very clear memory of making a trajectory choice like this.

When my daughter was two I took a job that allowed me to work from home almost exclusively on the computer. This meant that from 8:30 – 11:30 while she was at preschool I worked on the computer. When she napped for an hour (or pretended to) I worked on the computer. After her father got home, or after dinner depending on the project, I worked on the computer. After she went to bed, I worked on the computer. The result was that after a while I felt like I never had down time because I was always trying to squeeze some more work in. And I missed working with other people. I am very much an extrovert so working alone is draining.

When my daughter was five I had a job offer that would be full-time in an office. Despite my unhappiness with my solitary work, I was torn about disrupting the kid, changing how we lived our lives and so on. I distinctly remember mulling this over with my mother in law one day in her driveway. Her response was, and I quote, “There will always be another job but she won’t be five forever.”

I am sure she meant it the opposite way but I thought ‘Yeah, she wont be five forever and then where will my career be?’ I took the job that day. My fear of the future state was that I would limit myself and end up a housewife. Not as dramatic as the stories in Lean In, but still a choice point.

One thing that I found problematic about the Sandberg book, and something no one mentioned at this conference, was her lack of attention to the assumptions she makes. When speakers encouraged women to build and work their networks I started thinking I would have a better chance of playing Six Degrees of Separation with Hillary Clinton or Hugh Jackman than of finding a thread of connection to Sandburg.

And that’s a problem. Some, not all, of her success rests on the connections she made at Harvard. Plus she’s wicked smart. But the connections count more than the smartness. Lots and lots of wicked smart women don’t have the connections that will help them progress which is a bigger factor than their leaning in or out. So there is a whiff of both “blaming” women who are not advancing because they must not be leaning in enough, and a vague “chose your past well” kinda thing.  Its clear I should have gotten better grades in High School, so I could attend a better college, make better connections, get an internship” and so on. If that ship has sailed, then what?

I will have to reread the book to see if there are any clues. Or if she includes her personal email. I know some wicked smart women that could use a new network.