Before reading Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I didn’t think I agreed with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s take on balancing work and family life.
As a working mom myself, I felt much more sympathetic with Anne Marie Slaughter’s arguments in her much-read Atlantic magazine piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”
In my own experience, I and my working mother friends felt horribly torn about how the demands of work conflicted with the rigors and desires of mothering.
Slaughter put it concisely in the sub-head to her story:” The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.”
My assumption was that Sandberg wanted women to tough it out and push ahead with their careers while their kids were young, and to put success in the office ahead of the time-consuming, energy-sapping but ultimately deeply rewarding demands of parenting.
I thought of my friend Esther, who was working for the BBC when she had her baby, Nick, while being required to fly from New York to London every month to meet with her bosses.
When Nick was just five months old, a trip abroad meant Esther’s milk dried up and she had to quit nursing long before she had planned. “That was a low point,” she recalled to me just the other day.
In my own experience, carrying my son on the subway every day so that he could go to a daycare that was a half block from my office, and I could run over and nurse him when he got hungry, was both exhausting and satisfying.
I wanted to do it but there was no way I could work flat out and advance my career much while I was pursuing that schedule.
Fortunately, Forbes kept me on while I kept my hours in check. I couldn’t have imagined “leaning in” while my son was a baby, nor did I want to try.
But now that I’ve read Sandberg’s book, I see that she is much more sensitive to the pull of mothering and how it conflicts with the demands of work. To be sure, she has more than a touch of what Slaughter calls the superhuman.
And she certainly is rich (she didn’t make the 2013 Forbes Billionaires list but in October my colleague Ryan Mac pegged her net worth at $500 million, and Facebook stock has gone up since then).
On the other hand, she is sensitive to how difficult it can be to raise children while working hard and she writes about that subject with sophistication and thoughtful reflection on her first-hand experience.
But mostly Lean In is not so much about the balancing act of parenting versus working as it is about the challenges women face in trying to get ahead. Sandberg devotes only three of the book’s 11 chapters to work/family balance.
The rest are about how women can take charge of their own careers and push forward at a time when gender bias is more alive and well than most of us may want to admit.
Though she has been criticized for putting the onus on women to forge ahead on their own, I found her book full of careful research about how much sexism still pervades the workplace.
Another strength of the book is her willingness to admit her own failings and self-doubt.
- It’s incredibly difficult to manage both career and motherhood, even before you give birth.
In the book’s opening anecdote, Sandberg describes what a tough time she had while pregnant with her first child.
She gained 70 pounds, her feet swelled two shoe sizes and she vomited every day for nine months. I read this and I thought immediately, she gets it.
- She considers herself a feminist who benefits from the struggles of the activists who battled for women’s rights.
“We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted,” she writes. True.
- She points out that men still run the world.
Sandberg marshals plenty of statistics to support this fact. Example: “Of 197 heads of state, only 22 are women.”
Another fact: Of the top 500 companies by revenues, only 21 are headed by women. In politics, women hold just 18% of congressional offices.
- She gets it about women’s compensation.
Though it used to be worse, in 1970 American women made 59 cents for every dollar men earned, it’s still bad.
In 2010, women earned just 77 cents for every dollar men made. Her solution: negotiate like a man. When she was talking to Mark Zuckerberg about joining Facebook, she says she was inclined to accept the first offer he made.
But after her husband encouraged her to make a counter-offer, she did and Zuckerberg came back to her with a much more lucrative proposal.
- She believes the feminist revolution has stalled.
Sandberg writes extensively about the barriers women still face in the workplace, including “blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment.”
Despite my impression that she ignored this topic, she underlines the importance of workplace flexibility and the need for accessible child care and parental leave policies.
She also notes a 2011 McKinsey study showing that while men are promoted based on potential, women get a leg up based on past accomplishments.
This is the nut, and the most controversial part, of Sandberg’s book and the point that has stirred criticism among other feminists.
She says that women keep themselves from advancing because they don’t have the self-confidence and drive that men do.
“We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve,” she writes. Indeed, this is the part of the book that still gives me pause.