Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

To be honest, I started this book expecting to hate it. Most of the buzz I heard surrounding this book was negative criticisms — what does the wealthy, Harvard-educated Chief Operating Officer of Facebook know about being the average working mom? (Of course, what do I know about being a working mom?) But a close friend asked me to attend a community discussion on Sandburg’s book subtitled “Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”. Unfortunately, neither of us were able to read the book in time to attend the discussion yet, fortunately, my expectations of this book were completely unfounded.

The book’s main premise is that women should “lean in” by taking an active role in pursuing business opportunities and promotions without waiting for a mentor or someone else to recognize their talent and that men and women should recognize the structural barriers to women being able to lean in. These barriers run the gauntlet from raising girls to be sweet and accommodating to creating a work environment riddled with subtle gender discrimination to perpetrating this idea that women must choose between work and family while men do not.

I, thankfully, was not raised in an environment where my father was seen as simply a “child care arrangement”, as stay-at-home dads are categorized by the U.S. Census Bureau, or where I was seen as a hobby, which a staggering number of men classify their children according to a study cited by Sandburg. My parents were — are — a team, and this is certainly the expectation I have should I ever marry and have children, which Sandburg says is one of the biggest barriers to women “leaning in”.

What is most interesting in this discussion, though, is how the expectations for how many hours mothers will spend focused on their children have risen just as dramatically as the number of hours people are expected to work each week. According to Sandburg, stay-at-home mothers spent an average of about eleven hours per week on primary child care defined as routine caregiving and activities that foster a child’s well-being, such as reading and fully focused play, in 1975 while mothers employed outside the home spent six hours. Today, stay-at-home mothers spend about seventeen hours per week on primary child care, on average, while mothers who work outside the home spend about eleven hours. (pg. 134) So an employed mother spends the same amount of time with her children as a non-employed mother did during the heydays people keep trying to harken back to.

“[Dr. Peggy McIntosh] explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even expects in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are — impostors with limited skills or abilities.” (pg. 28)

I spent almost this entire book nodding along in agreement, but the above section is one where I started to feel like Sandburg really knew what she was talking about. Here is an Ivy League educated person articulating exactly how I feel when I’m called on in class, when I finish taking a test — that expectation that I will embarrass myself and someone will figure out that I am not smart enough and therefore do not belong in advanced classes, undergraduate lecture halls, and now in grad school. It is, frankly, refreshing to see someone so high up in the business world admit that she, too, felt this way. Gives me hope that I will eventually overcome this.

I also appreciated how dismissive she was about women needing to find a “mentor” in order to succeed in business. I’ve never understood why people are always asking me if I have a mentor or encouraging me to seek out a woman — always a woman — in a position I’d eventually like to hold. I’ve never heard one of my male classmates being instructed to do this, and it was nice to hear that (a) one cannot simply ask a person to be their mentor as there needs to be a reason for the mentor to want to invest their time in you and (b) read all these studies showing that mentoring rarely does that much for women in the workplace. I’m sure there is a lot of people out there who have had wonderful mentoring relationships, but I’ve always felt uncomfortable by how forced these relationships are.

Book Mentioned:

  • Sandburg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print. 217 pgs. ISBN: 9780385349949. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Knopf. Retrieved: October 7, 2013.
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