You know that old adage, no one on her deathbed ever wished she spent more time in the office? Well, turns out there is one person who may wish just that, and she’ll wish it not just for herself, but for you, too. She just wrote a bestseller about it.
I should start by confessing that I was, and probably still am, in the wrong frame of mind to absorb and respond to Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In. For some months I avoided it, casting hairy eyeballed side glances at the book as I clomped along the pocked sidewalk on Connecticut Avenue, where we are lucky enough to still have the brick and mortar KramerBooks. For months that impossibly un-tired visage smiled back through the window, undaunted.
I hated the title. It still provokes this outsized reaction for me:
I blame Sandberg’s publicists/agents/editors/other people. And yet, like others, I have taken perverse pleasure in perfecting my counter-title:
Why Don’t You Lean In for Both of Us.
Jump Around. Jump Around. Jump Up, Jump Up and Get Down.
Roll Over, You’re Snoring.
My Kids Just Eat Carbs and Miss Me.
If I Keep Working This Hard I’ll Never Know How to Dougie.
As fun as it is to make fun, the peanut gallery is no place to stay in a discussion that cuts to the core of how we as women experience our lives, distribute our energies and labor, and navigate a still very unequal society. I have also been heartened by how loud and sustained this discussion has become of late, launched in significant part by Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic that dared to rip off the scab that never seems to form long enough to heal the skin under it. I remember reading the Slaughter piece a few days or weeks before it was everywhere, nodding throughout in agreement. For all her critics’ observation that she lacked empirical data, everything she said about reaching and surpassing her maximum and needing to make a major adjustment sure as hell rang true to me. But I didn’t see what was so revolutionary about it.
A week or so later, the managing partner of our firm asked me what I thought of it. My first reaction was surprise that he had read it and wanted my view. Something had shifted. Indeed, despite my own reactions and the criticisms to follow, it has to be a net positive that the broader public is gobbling up these writings, arguing over them, dissecting them, spitting, yelling, guffawing, amen’ing, whatever.
Finally, enough people I love and respect asked me what I thought of Sandberg’s book, and so as tempting as it was to regurgitate the comments I’d picked up from pundits, I put my hard earned $24.95 where my mouth was and read it.
There are many, many important and painful truths in this book. The research notes are a bibliography of must-read studies in gender bias that every parent, worker, human should take time to grapple with. I was blown away when Sandberg described a speech she heard in college about the prevalence of successful women believing that they are really a fraud, that sooner or later someone is going to come along and figure out that they don’t belong where they are or deserve what they’ve achieved. I can’t tell you how many women I know, myself included, who have struggled in exactly this way. And I raged anew at the smart-for-boys, pretty-for-girls ideals that are reinforced in our culture, supported by our commerce. I needed a stark reminder that they are ready to prey upon my 6 year old daughter, who right now openly discusses the challenges she will face balancing being President and an artist. I nodded vigorously at the observation that the single most critical decision that a woman can make if she chooses a career and family is who her partner will be. I winced in recognition at the data on how women underestimate their contribution, how we underpromise then overproduce, and demand less financial reward and promotion. There is good stuff here, no question.
One point that Sandberg makes early on, however, is that all advice is autobiographical. To respond to this book, then, you must first process how you relate to one Sheryl Sandburg. And if you haven’t done so yet, I suggest you do it soon, because this book is clearly her Audacity of Hope, and you can’t read it – particularly the Acknowledgments - without concluding that this woman has come to play on the big stage. [Hilary, take note: Sandberg makes about as many references to her time at the Treasury Department as she does to her years at Google. Just saying.]
Particularly for women, the audience whom she beseeches not to fear, reject or flee from their own presumptively stratospheric and rewarding careers, it is absolutely critical to take one’s own measure of Sandberg. So to my mere mortal sisters, non-TED talk givers, fellow bunion sufferers, I say this: consider the source.
Here are some things about the source.
Sheryl Sandberg’s siblings gave a toast at her wedding, saying “we were Sheryl’s first employees.” She admits having taught them to “follow me around, listen to my monologues, and scream the word “Right!” She’s embarrassed about it now, but on the other hand, she’s pretty sure she wouldn’t take so much heat for it if she’d been a boy. She’s probably right about that.
Sheryl Sandberg has a color-coded filing system and takes great pleasure from reorganizing her closet. Speaking of filing, file those facts away for when she later quotes Nora Ephron and urges you to “embrace the mess.”
Sheryl Sandberg loves motivational phrases, particularly the ones on posters that adorn Facebook’s offices, where she is awesomely motivated every day by her work, the thousands of employees she has hired, and the amazing Mark Zuckerberg. Her favorite is, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It is strange that she has landed on that particular question from which to draw inspiration, because one searches in vain for an iota of fear or risk aversion or humility born of failure. Keep searching. Because there is scant evidence that Sheryl Sandberg has ever failed at anything.
Her college thesis advisor? Larry Summers. Gave her the first big break as his researcher at the World Bank. She killed it. On to Harvard Business School, one of the top seven in her first year class but too daunted by gender-influenced shame (a point that absolutely resonated with this reader) to admit it. On to McKinsey, then back to DC to join Summers at Treasury. Chief of Staff at Treasury. On to Silicon Valley, for a brief chat with Eric Schmidt, CEO of the “then relatively unknown Google,” who told her to take any seat on the “rocket ship,” which she did. Some years later, she turned down several CEO offers to become COO of Facebook.
Think that last move was a bad idea? Of course not, but Sheryl Sandberg still wants to tell you how others did, and that they can all eat it. “At first, people questioned why I would take a ‘lower level’ job working for a twenty-three year old. No one asks me that anymore.”
Sheryl Sandberg’s big regret? Not the failed starter marriage, which she touches upon, but largely to explain why she didn’t accept Summers’ first entreaty to come help him run the Treasury Department. Sheryl Sandberg’s big regret is that in the earlier years of her career, she did not sleep enough. She now knows that more hours of sleep translate to greater productivity. For anyone who has interviewed a job candidate whose “biggest weakness” is simply being “too focused” or “a perfectionist to a fault,” you will relate.
This is Sheryl Sandberg. She should not apologize for it and is deservedly proud of her accomplishments. And as a woman of my own accomplishments, including equally rare and expensive educational opportunities, powerful and name-droppable mentors, the whole nine, I as much as anyone should be cheering this woman on. I really should, and I’d like to think I am, deep down. She’s also given me the data to suggest that if I am tempted to dislike her, it’s because of her success. That’s chapter 3. I wouldn’t dislike her if she were Howard instead of Heidi.
In the end, though, the question is not whether I’d invite Sheryl Sandberg out for Gimlet Night with my ladies, or whether she’d attend one held anywhere but Davos. The question is whether her advice is separable from her biography, whether the author’s lack of relatability strips the book of much-needed accessability. I would like to think not, though in the later chapters Sandberg’s stories of triumph over mommy guilt, housework imbalance, workplace miscommunication, child care challenges (Facebook is so family-friendly, she can just bring those kids in if she feels like it, and Mark Zuckerberg even gives her son fencing lessons!!)….start to read like one of her favorite motivational posters, a utopia that can come from brainstorming, freeing yourself of fear, marrying a completely loving and supportive partner…. and cashing in a few Google stock options.
The book suffers most when Sandberg veers from the realm she has so impressively and deftly conquered, and the skills and instincts she drew upon to do it. Having acknowledged that we can’t “have it all,” she falls victim to trying to “say it all,” to cover every base in ways that seem contrived and fall flat.
Her attempts to use humorous anecdotes to prove to overstressed mothers everywhere, “hey, we’ve ALL been there!” are funny, but unfortunately not in the way she intended. Example: one day she brought her son to school wearing a blue T-shirt, only to be reminded by some stay at home mom that the kid should be wearing green, because it was St. Patrick’s Day. That’s her story of dropping the ball for her kids. Meanwhile, last week I had Devan’s school call me, because the after-school Chinese class had actually ended the prior week, and therefore my child had been deserted for the last hour with no ride home. [That’s a parenting fuck-up, Sheryl. You don’t want to go toe to toe with me on this.] And Sandberg can’t shed her positive, earnesty earnestness and espoused support for all women long enough to call that sancti-mommy who has nothing better to do than obsess over holiday theme-colored clothes the asshole that she clearly is. No, instead Sheryl points out that this lady does a lot of worthwhile volunteering in the school and really helps the community, and that she Sheryl validates and celebrates that choice.
Except we know for damn sure that she doesn’t. There is NO way that yoga pant, Sheryl-judging stay at home mom is Leaning In.
Similarly, each time Sandberg tries to prove her awareness that most women lack anything close to the resources she enjoys, it’s pretty cringe-worthy. Yes, I see you all out there. I get it. Did I tell you about how when I was Chief of Staff at Treasury I “ran point on some smaller projects, including the administration’s proposal to promote the development of vaccines for infectious diseases?” The book takes a “hey, look over there!! Is that a giant purple elephant??!” quality to discussions of working class women, single mothers, and the fact that, more than anything else, vastly different points on the starting line of life predict whether women have a career or a punch-the-clock, hope not to get injured on the assembly line, j-o-b that barely feeds their family.
Her thesis is that things will improve for women – for people – everywhere once there are more women leading companies and governments. I would like to think that is true, and yet, Sandberg herself cites more data that women who reach these objective measures of success tend to suffer a weird amnesia that leads them to underestimate gender discrimination. And, unless we adopt other stereotypes – that women tend toward nurture, empathy, inclusion, and community – why would we assume that those who attain tremendous money and power will behave any differently than men once they get to join them at the top? It would in some sense be more congruent with her message to ask why a woman can’t be just as ruthless and self-interested as a man.
Sandberg’s personal example of women in leadership making things better is designated pregnancy parking at Google, which lived on after she asked Larry and Serge one day if they could make her pregnant schlep across the lot a little less brutal. But she sees no tension in rallying to the defense of her friend and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s non-maternity leave, ignoring that leadership might create responsibility that transcends what she indignantly argues should be Mayer’s personal choice and no one else’s. Here’s a question, though: why couldn’t Mayer just do what she was planning to do – “take a few weeks and I’ll work throughout it” – without announcing it to the world? Sandberg’s argument that so long as Mayer left maternity policies in place for others at Yahoo, there should be no issue, doesn’t pass the straight face test. Earlier in the book she puzzles over the phenomenon of unused vacation days, yet she fails to see the connective thread to the Mayer maternity leave conundrum: that resistance to taking time away from work is not a matter of policy as much as one of custom and expectation. As I read the situation, either Mayer had to quell investors’ fears about hiring a very pregnant CEO, which is one problem, or she chose to set a harsh and even dangerous example to women in her field and beyond: You want to run with the big dogs? Skip the Sitz baths.
Of course, what Sandberg’s contribution and Mayer’s example share in common is the apotheosis of work, which brings me to the heart of the matter. Sandberg’s thesis is this:
”Women are surrounded by headlines and stories warning them that they cannot be committed to both their families and careers. They are told over and over again that they have to choose, because if they try to do too much, they’ll be harried and unhappy. Framing the issue as ‘work-life balance’ – as if the two were diametrically opposed – practically ensures that work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?”
That’s it, in a nutshell. Sheryl Sandberg truly believes that women are shortchanging work in their lives. Work is losing out.
I said at the beginning of this post that I’m maybe the wrong person to properly assess this book, but that isn’t really true. As a partner in a law firm, a mother of two young children, a wife, a sister, and a daughter, I’m actually in the perfect position to respond, and what Sandberg is saying does not accord with my experience. Not in the least.
First, no one told me, much less over and over again, that I had to choose work or family. They would not have dared, and that is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others. In three years at Harvard Law School I did not witness or participate in a single discussion about whether my professional choices would or might have to encompass the added and extraordinary work of raising children. In fact, such talk was like the third rail – no professor or advisor would dare go there, at the risk of appearing to discourage women students. In retrospect, I appreciate the attempt to treat us equally, but I regret not putting some time and thought into it back then, when the slate was still sort of blank, and I had a lot of free time to just talk with smart and passionate and creative people.
I haven’t heard many voices urging me to choose family over work since then, either. Devan was one year old when the job market tanked in 2008, and those women I know who did opt for a temporary “off-ramp” were in fairly dire straights and scrambled – some successfully, some not – to be rehired as lawyers. The messaging to me was, appreciate that you have a job, work harder at it to be among the indispensable, and try to ignore that gnawing feeling that comes when you don’t know your kid’s shoe size.
For better and for worse, work takes precedence in my life, in my husband’s life, and in the lives of most everyone I know. The structure of private law practice demands it, because at the end of each day my time must be accounted for, and it is allocated to individual clients for billing, or else, it is for all intents and purposes wasted. That billing drives my compensation and chances of promotion, period. Since I had my kids, I am pretty relentless about making every hour at work “count.” At the same time, the firm has offered, and I have taken up, greater administrative leadership responsibilities, which are non-billable but which give me a broader and more powerful profile in the organization. I am lucky to work with great people who have trained me and supported me and pushed me.
But in the pie graph of my life, it is not work that is getting squeezed. And while Sandberg would experience me as an unfortunate stereotype of the working mother who is harried and, at times, unhappy, I am not a victim, nor do I regret most of my choices. I have an amazing, supportive partner who took fabulous care of our children and home when I was in Chicago for a three month trial last year. He did it with grace and never questioned that I would go, that I would be checked out and Leaned In (long before we knew there was a term for it), and that I would excel on behalf of my client. Sandberg would be psyched to hear this, but she would cringe at what I say now: this professional highlight devastated me as a mother, and a year later I am still struggling to get my bearings again. This process is hampered, admittedly, by a smart and emotionally savvy 6 year old future president who has (even recently) laid such doozies on me as: “Mommy, when you were in Chicago, it felt like you had died.”
That’s not a wrong-colored t-shirt moment. It is a moment that Anne Marie Slaughter captured and dared to describe as different for mothers than it is for fathers. She took some hell for that, but I agree with her. And while Sandberg cites data suggesting that children do not suffer cognitively, socially or behaviorally by having a non-parent primary caregiver, she doesn’t give much consideration to the entirely separate question of how we leaned-in women experience loss by being away from our children. What if the question was not whether our children would still thrive with two full-time working parents, but how we as adults will remember or not, rejoice or not, regret or not, the finite snippet of time in which these beings we created seem to want and need us the most? Is that just mommy guilt to be managed away, or am I entitled to a full and honest evaluation of my life as it truly is, including how I thought I would experience parenthood? And if, in the end, I decide to leave something on the table in my professional life, have I set all womanhood back by doing that?
I can hear Sandberg saying, “Of course not! That’s not what I said!”
But it kind of is. Sandberg’s take on choices is like Orwell’s pigs: They’re all equal. Some are just more equal than others.
It may be that Sheryl Sandberg simply experiences life at one end of the internal conflict spectrum, and that’s that. But her message is now out there, and it is open to interpretation by ambitious women everywhere, like the young associate I met a few months ago. She was the junior member on the legal team defending a huge corporation in a civil suit. My client was a fact witness, a retired executive who would be deposed in the litigation. The deposition was in Indianapolis, in a nondescript hotel conference room. It was a fairly minor footnote in the context of the larger case, and for that reason this associate had been given the opportunity to be first chair. She was prepared well beyond what the task required, as she would only ask my client about six softball questions at the end of the seven hours of questioning by the plaintiff. But her legs bounced with nervous energy, and she worked up the nerve to tussle with opposing counsel here and there. I liked her a lot, and we had gotten to know one another a bit. We were about halfway through a long slog of a day when she checked her cell phone at a break. Her face suddenly fell, and her shoulders slumped. I asked if everything was ok. She said, “my baby just took her first steps.” I said the only thing I could think to say. “I’m so sorry. It really sucks to miss that.” She shook off the emotion, as she needed to, and said, “Well, I guess this is my Lean In moment!!”
We put our mikes back on, and the deposition resumed. She asked her six questions and did a fine job. We made haste to the airport, where she debriefed with the fairly intense male partner from her firm, and I found a seat at the Champs Sports Bar and ordered a sauvignon blanc. It was Friday at six; I would definitely miss bedtime. I called home to wish goodnights as The Humpty Dance played fairly loudly in the background.
As I sipped my wine, I thought of this young woman lawyer, and I wish I had said more. I wish I had told her the truth, or spoke my truth, as Sandberg would say. I should have said, no, this is absolutely not your Lean In moment, though if you choose to stick with this profession, you will have them. I’ve had mine. I cross-examined a government cooperator for two straight days and left him in bloody tatters across a courtrroom floor in Chicago. You will know it when it happens, and it will feel great. But this deposition, these 9 hours including breaks in Conference Room B at the Marriott Indianapolis-North? This ain’t it. This is what’s called a straight-up grind of a business trip. This is a day that you hung in there, which is three quarters of the battle.
As one who has been at this a bit longer, I should also have told you that you will not feel any better by lying to yourself. This is and forever will be the day your daughter took her first steps. I guarantee you that one day you will not remember the name of this case or who you deposed, but you will remember that. Get a good night of sleep, for tomorrow you will wake up to an official toddler. And at some point, know that you are entitled to – and should – turn over these facts and take their measure, not to dwell but to look at all of this in the bright light of day. But right now, let this just be a day that you did your job and did it well. And if it helps at all, you are more than welcome to lean on me.