If you follow the news at all, you’ve probably heard or read about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Depending on your situation, you may have decided not to read it, figuring it was just another women-of-privilege-who-whine manifesto, or a book for women who work full-time.
Actually having read Lean In, I would say that the book offers a calm, balanced, well researched consideration of how women fit into our society, and that it has HUGE implications for how we work, and more importantly, how we raise our daughters (and our sons).
Whether you’re married or single, a parent or not, working full-time, part-time, or not at all, I think the issues and questions Sandberg raises are important and worth your consideration.
First, although women experience less institutional bias these days, social bias still works against girls and women who are smart, strong, ambitious, or leaders.
I can tell you from personal experience that the social barriers Sandberg describes (girls who lead are labeled bossy; even young girls know that being smart is good in some ways, but won’t make people like you; boys don’t like smart, successful girls, etc) are apt. Whether your daughters choose to work or not, the message that the brain and personality God gave them is somehow wrong or something to be hidden rather than used is not acceptable. It is not wrong for girls to be smart and ambitious, any more than it’s wrong for boys to be artistic or empathetic. We have unique strengths and weaknesses. As parents our job is to raise our children in the way they should go (the Hebrew word is something like “as they are bent”) not to try to fit them into some pre-conceived mold of how boys or girls should be.
Second, whether you approve or not, the majority of women work, and most of them work because they have to.
Sandberg cites the research: 41% of mothers are breadwinners. An additional 23% are co-breadwinners, contributing at least a quarter of their family’s income. I’d also add that in a volatile economy, women have to be ready to be the breadwinner if their husband loses a job, even if that isn’t their normal contribution or goal. As Sandberg takes pains to mention several times, not all women want careers. It’s fine if that’s not something your daughter chooses, but I think it’s naive to assume she will automatically have that choice. It’s better to prepare our children to be flexible, so they can function no matter what sort of life circumstances they wind up with. Moreover, even if my girls choose to be home with my grandchildren, I still don’t want them to internalize negative messages about who they are in the meantime.
Third, and for parents and educators, this is deeply important and sobering: the messages we give (and allow to be given) to our girls will have lasting impact on the sort of women, leaders, wives, and mothers they will become.
Having gone through it myself, I can tell you that it’s incredibly hurtful to be told that due to your personality type probably no one will ever want to marry you, or that you shouldn’t have kids because you’ll make a bad mom. It also doesn’t help to be told that you can’t possibly balance work and family. It took me a couple of decades to realize that while we all have strengths and weaknesses, who we are is not a mistake. I wish more people would step up and say that while there are always trade-offs, and you might not be able to be a CEO and be a really involved parent, you can find a way to navigate some sort of fulfilling work with being a big part of your child’s life. Likewise, I think boys need to be raised to know that their strength and success is not contingent on girls being less; that their intelligence is not threatened by a girl being smart; that their leadership is not negated by female input.
Sandberg’s premise is that due to these social factors, which they pick up from childhood, women often “leave before they leave” rather than doing their best in life and taking a step back from a career when they must. Instead, she thinks women should “lean in,” however that plays out in their callings, and overcome internal barriers to success.
Although I think some of the barriers to women being Fortune 500 CEOs are personal (I’m an ENTJ and cum laude graduate of a top 3 Ivy like Sandberg, but I don’t want to work the hours she does or parent as she does, so I’m ok with not being an executive–there are different ways to define success), I think as a society we do need to continue working on the messages we send to children and young adults about who they are and what they are capable of doing. Even as a entry-level worker in my 20s I experienced almost all of the bias and bad responses Sandberg talks about, and working and parenting were always presented to me in stark contrast, as though either you’re a good mom, or you work. As Sandberg writes, “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?”
Although I agreed with Sandberg’s statistics and anecdotal reports, I found I disagreed with her some of her conclusions. Overall, however, I found the book helpful and thought-provoking.
I don’t know that the answer is for half of companies and governments to be run by women and half of homes to be run by men. I don’t know that I would ever tell my kids that working 80 hours a week (for men or women) would leave enough time to be a really great parent.
But there is value to teaching our children that success and likeability can go hand-in-hand for boys AND girls. That smart girls shouldn’t intimidate someone any more than smart boys do. That a woman who explains why she’s qualified, or who gets results and achieves great things at school or work, or who negotiates a better salary, can be still feminine and nice, just as a man who does those things can be masculine and nice.
Depending on your personality, this stuff may not be or have been a big deal for you. But it might be for your children or for children you interact with or teach. For that reason, I think the ideas and insights in Lean In are worth your time and consideration.
People have had some visceral responses to this book. If you’ve read it, what did you think? If you’ve decided not to read it, what led you to that decision?
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