Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lean In:Women, Work, and the Will to Lead - by Sheryl Sandberg

Back in June I blogged about Betty Friedan's classic feminist work The Feminine Mystique. I mentioned then that I had just started to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In commenting that if there were any libraries in the book you would find out here. So here I make good on my promise. There is one. Sandberg tells of the first job she took out of college "at the World Bank as research assistant to Larry Summers...[She] spent the first nine months  in the stacks of the Bank library...looking up facts and figures for Larry's papers and speeches." We can safely assume that she was not Summers' assistant, though, when he made his now infamous remarks at Harvard in 2005 about women's (lack of) aptitude in the sciences. I actually found it rather ironic how much she praised Summers in this book. A quick look at the index indicated that he actually gets twelve times as much print space as libraries do!

When this work first came out earlier this year it got a lot of press. There was some controversy of course, what with a woman suggesting that other women can be leaders and all. I read this slowly (two chapters a month) as part of a discussion group on our campus. We met monthly to discuss what we read, and to reflect on how the book might relate to us. There were several dozen women who were part of this group, which included not only librarians, but administrators, clerical workers, maintenance workers, and faculty members. I think it is fair to say that Sandberg's book reflects her own socioeconomic, heteronormative status, but that is not to say that her words are not relevant to those who do not share those statuses. In our discussions we were all able to see how we could lead from where we were, and to suggest ways to make things better for ourselves, and others. There were places though where we recognized that Sandberg's privilege plays a big role in what she is able to accomplish. We also agreed that while we can make some changes for ourselves, there is much that needs to be recognized by society at large. Sandberg, for example suggests to "make your partner a partner". For those of us who have partners this is fine advice as far as it goes, but even for those of us whose husband's drive the carpool, and share other household responsibilities we still have to contend with things like schools only ever calling the mother to pick up a sick child (even when the father's name and number are listed first). I also find that while I generally enjoy working in the same organization as my husband, one major drawback is that some people seem to think of me as his messenger. If he isn't in his office when they happen to stop by, or he is slow to respond to e-mail they have no compunction of contacting me and asking me to "let him know that...", or even ask me to deliver something to him. He virtually never gets messages for me unless they are of the 'remember me to your wife' variety.

Sandberg's message that women should decide what is important to them and ask for it is another place where her socioeconomic status seems to make her unaware of how much of the world functions. I can hardly imagine a woman working two minimum wage jobs having the privilege of telling her boss that she'd like to be home for dinner with her children most days of the week. While she may be just as likely to want such a simple thing, she is not likely to have much flexibility in her scheduled hours, and may be too busy getting from one job to the other to even consider making that dream come true.

Despite its problems, ultimately I give this book a thumbs up. I do believe Sandberg has the best interests of everyone (men, women, and children) at the heart of this work, and everyone can find something from which to benefit in it.

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