Can We Please Stop Hating on Sheryl Sandberg?

I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In last summer, before this book blog was born. I felt compelled to go back and look at it again now, after seeing this article appear in my own Facebook newsfeed repeatedly. I laughed along with the article at the beginning – “some college students, like Sheryl Sandberg, teach aerobics classes. Other college students, like myself, lie around the dorm reading novels…this of course, is also why I hate her.” Then, I got to the end of article, and I thought, wait, I don’t think that was what Lean In was about at all.

In “Recline: A Manifestus for the Rest of Us,” Rosa Brooks argued against the idea of leaning in because a) Sheryl Sandberg has a lot of money and therefore she can make different decisions than the rest of us, and b) women still do the majority of housework and childcare so how the F are they supposed to lean in at work?

As for a), Sandberg acknowledges that her book. And b) Yes. That is part of the problem and part of the question and every time I see that particular criticism of Lean In, I wonder if the critic has actually read the book.

Lean In is not supposed to be a be-all end-all treatise on the status of women in society. It’s not about being supermom, and it’s not about the gender-wage gap, and it’s not supposed to compel anyone to put in more time for a lesser quality of life.  It’s about more women in leadership roles. It’s about breaking down barriers that prevent women from reaching the top leadership ranks in business and politics – specifically, self-erected barriers.

There are social and institutional barriers to women’s success, and Sandberg recognizes and acknowledges those. However, this book is not about external barriers – and I found that refreshing. I spent a lot of time studying, and I still spend a lot of time pointing out, the ways that society works to repress women. Lean In made me examine the trees, instead of the forest. Lean In made me think about the choices that are within my control. Lean In acknowledged some things that I knew, but perhaps could not articulate very well.

Like this:

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.

Yes. I met J when I was 27. For a short-time, we were both employed as part-time secretaries and high school athletic coaches with Master’s degrees. Up to that point, we had both made several moves and job changes in our twenties, trying to find the right place to land. I absolutely can look back on every major life decision I had made up until then, and know that I took into account the status of whatever relationship I was in, or even those “relationships” that might have a vague possibility of blossoming in the next six to twelve months, when determining my next steps. I know that J took absolutely none of that into account in his own trajectory. And yet, we both ended up at the same place (and fortunately for us, at the same time). I learned that I wasted, if nothing else, a lot of brainpower and energy overanalyzing decisions that probably deserved no room in my head. J got reinforcement for his M.O., that, the key to developing a healthy, happy relationship is finding someone who’s lifestyle can fit into yours (and you into theirs), rather than building your decisions around someone else – especially not a hypothetical “someone else.” Why don’t we teach girls that?

Instead, this is what we take on, per Sandberg:

A few years ago, a young woman at Facebook came to my desk and asked if she could speak to me privately. We headed into a conference room, where she began firing questions about how I balance work and family. As the questions came faster and faster, I started to wonder about her urgency. I interrupted to ask if she had a child. She said no, but she liked to plan ahead. I inquired if she and her partner were considering having a child. She replied that she did not have a husband, then added with a little laugh, ‘actually, I don’t even have a boyfriend.’ It seemed to me that she was jumping the gun – big time – but I understood why. From an early age, girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they will make between professional and personal goals.

As I dove back into Lean In, I went back and forth on how to rate the book. I started thinking it was a solid 4-stars for me – the book covers many things I already knew about women and work, presented with a slightly different perspective. However, what pushes it over into a 5-star, is the chapter “Don’t Leave Before You Leave.” Here, I think Sandberg addresses something that no one else is really talking about, and that we need to talk about. It goes like this:

Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family. Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that they leave before they leave. The classic scenario unfolds like this. An ambitious and successful woman heads down a challenging career path with the thought of having children in the back of her mind. At some point, this thought moves to the front of her mind, typically once she finds a partner. The woman considers how hard she is working and reasons that to make room for a child she will have to scale back…often without even realizing it, the woman stops reaching for new opportunities… The problem is that even if she were to get pregnant immediately, she still has nine months before she has to care for an actual child. And since women usually start this mental preparation well before trying to conceive, several years often pass between the thought and conception, let alone birth. In the case of my Facebook questioner, it might even be a decade. By the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career that she would have been had she not leaned back.

Sandberg goes on to talk about how this affects the new mother coming back to the workplace; she is likely to scale back her ambitions, and becomes more ready to leave permanently (if that is an option), because she’s no longer headed for the top, and no longer given challenging opportunities. Perhaps this is where the criticism of Sandberg comes in from Brooks and others – women shouting that they can’t lean in at work when there is so much to take care of at home.

Again, I wonder if they kept reading. Sandberg talks about her own parenting – yes, acknowledging that she and her husband can afford exceptional child care. She talks about how they manage household responsibilities, admits fault, and grapples with her decisions. I didn’t take any of the judgment that seems to be projected onto Sandberg and the Lean In movement by those working moms shouting “recline” or “lean out!” She talks about the need for women to engage with their partners to share household responsibilities, and how sometimes we need to settle for less than perfection, at home and at work.

One of my favorite posters at Facebook declares in big red letters. “Done is better than perfect.” I have tried to embrace this motto and let go of unattainable standards. Aiming for perfection causes frustration at best and paralysis at worst.

Sandberg spells out her objectives in black and white at the end: “I have written this book to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential. I am hoping that each woman will set her own goals and reach for them with gusto.

Sure, most of us don’t have Sandberg’s resources – whether partnered or single, parents or not. Not everyone aspires to leadership roles, and not everyone has the skill-set to lead. However, I’m tired of reading the same two criticisms of Lean In – “easy for her to say, with her salary,” and “I don’t want to sit at the table, thank you very much.”

If you want to criticize Lean In, fine. We can talk about addressing the social and institutional barriers versus chipping away individually. We can talk about the gender wage gap, and affordable child care, and the seemingly endless fight for women’s control over our own bodies. Believe you me, I can – and often do – talk about all those things until I’m blue in the face. But at the same time, I’ll quote Sandberg one more time – “let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts. They are equally important.