What Would Sheryl Do?
By Katie Lorenz
Stephen Bush’s recent “Parting Thoughts” piece (June 2013) critiquing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, asked whether we might all be better off if we instead “step back.” He shared his personal experience with seeking a work-life balance, while criticizing Sandberg for framing these struggles as merely “women’s issues.” Though he admitted he had not reach much her book, he concluded with the bold assertion that men like him who serve as their children’s primary caregiver “struggle equally with all of the issues raised by Sandberg,” while professional women without children “struggle with these issues far less.”
I beg to differ. Sandberg devotes just one of the 11 chapters in her book to the issue of finding a work-life balance. (Spoiler alert: she concludes it’s impossible.) Sandberg wholeheartedly agrees that work-life balance issues affect both men and women. In fact, she would undoubtedly applaud Bush’s difficult choice to stay home with his child and point out that he is setting just as important an example about equality as the rare woman who reaches the top of her organization. I expect she would salute his honesty in admitting how much he missed his son when he was working full time at a prestigious firm, just as she would salute his firm’s decision to rewrite his contract rather than accept his resignation.
But Sandberg’s book addresses much more than the elusive goal of achieving a balance between work and life, whether that nonwork life includes children or not. In fact, that’s really not Lean In’s focus at all. Sandberg wrote the book to explore why women continue to be vastly underrepresented in the upper echelons of government and business despite rough equality in our education levels. She seeks to start a continuing conversation about why more women aren’t advancing to leadership positions despite all the gains made on our behalf by the women who came before us. Sandberg explores not only external factors that play a role, but also what we as women may be doing to ourselves to sabotage professional goals.
For example, she shares an anecdote about observing several young women early in their careers who literally shied away from sitting at the table during an important meeting, opting instead to flank the outer edges of the room even after being invited to join the big kids’ table. She also shares volumes of research about core differences in the ways that men and women tend to behave at work. She points out that women don’t raise our hands for new opportunities or tout our own past accomplishments as often or as comfortably as our male colleagues. Women tend to wait until we’re confident we’re completely prepared for a role before venturing into new territory, whereas men are less likely to suffer from such self-doubt.
These differences stem in part from a woman’s fear of not being liked if we appear too aggressive. Sandberg’s chapter about success and likeability provides ample support for why this fear is well founded, though I suspect most women instinctively understand this phenomenon without needing to read about the studies she cites. As women, we’re often not conscious that we’re limiting ourselves in these ways. Nor are our (often male) bosses. Lean In seeks to make us all more conscious of these differences.
So when Bush asks, “Is it possible to hold these discussions in a gender-neutral way?” My response is a resounding no. The discussions needn’t, and shouldn’t, be divisive or accusatory, but they also can’t ignore gender differences, regardless of whether you believe they’re driven by biology, culture or some combination. I hope more men of my generation are brave enough to fight gender stereotypes and stay home with their children if they wish. But until that happens, and until there is a roughly equal number of women and men in positions of power, it would be foolish for us to have these conversations in a gender-neutral way.
That doesn’t mean that Sandberg’s book applies only to women. Far from wanting to cast these issues as “women’s issues,” Sandberg urges all of us to start talking more openly about them. She dreams of a world where her daughter can choose to excel in the workforce and her son can choose to stay home to raise his children, and both will be respected for those choices.
We’ll get there faster if more firms respond to men’s caretaking needs and decisions the way that Bush’s did. We’ll also get there faster once more men in leadership roles are aware that the person clamoring the loudest for the big promotion or the important new project may not be the best candidate for the job; it’s quite possible she’s down the hall waiting until she feels 100 percent qualified before she expresses her interest. Maybe it’s time to knock on her door.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Lorenz is an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland. The views expressed in this piece are hers.
© 2013 Katie Lorenz