A Parking Spot Isn’t a Revolution

Unless you’ve been living in a hole for the last few months, you know about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  I won’t repeat the contents, but will summarize briefly.  Sandberg believes that women hold themselves.  As Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, she’s got a lot of street cred and she’s getting a lot of attention.  If you’re interested, I suggest you watch her on 60 Minutes and listen to her on NPR.

Before reading the book, I read about the book and, yes, formed opinions without cracking the cover.  I finished the book about a week ago and was inspired after reading this piece today by James Allworth in HBR.

If I had to sum up this book with one word, that word would be — confusing.

Sandberg and I are both members of Generation X‘s senior class.  At early, impressionable ages we witnessed social upheaval on our living room televisions without any context.  Feminists, I remember, were angry people who burned their unmentionables and wanted to send women to VietNam.  We came of age during Ronald Reagan’s presidency: the punishment for all that agitation.  His backlash was answered by more backlash.  I don’t blame Sandberg for being confused.

I do, however, hold her accountable for being blind to her own lack of clarity.

Sandberg has been criticized for the irrelevance of her advice to women who can’t dictate the terms of their schedule or hire nannies to care for their children.  An ivy league educated woman, her life bears little resemblance to most of ours.  This, however, does not attract from her brains, hard work, and achievements.  Aren’t most social movements spearheaded by the elite?  They are more likely to have the luxury of time, the means to ponder society’s complexity; the status and the connections to be heard.

She’s been criticized for avoiding systemic issues that alienate women from careers.  This article from the New York Times discusses ways in which the tax code discourages women with children from working.  Indeed, when my eldest was born, I had to face the reality that my entire paycheck would be spent on daycare.  Sandberg mentions this with a twist.  “One miscalculation that some women make is to drop out early in their careers because their salary barely covers the cost of child care.  Child care is a huge expense, and it’s frustrating to work hard just to break even.  But professional women need to measure the cost of child care against their future salary rather than their current salary.”  (pg 102)

It’s true that women lose ground in terms of wages and retirement saving if the chose to take time off to raise their children. But stick-to-it-ive-ness is no guarantee of a financial payoff.  The middle class is floundering.  As Kate Losse wrote in in Dissent, “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the workplace without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.”

Sandberg offers overly-simplified, almost childlike answers to a complex world.  Throughout the book, she makes the point that women leaders are viewed differently than their male counterparts.  What makes a man a strong leader makes a woman a bitch.  Sandberg’s solution to that?  Add more women so everyone will like us better. “It is easy to dislike senior women because there are so few.  If women held 50 percent of the top jobs, it would just not be possible to dislike that many people.”  (p 50)

The lynchpin of her book is that once women rise to power, they will enact change.  She cites herself as an example; she once asked that her company add special parking places for pregnant women.  To me, it’s not about the genitals of the person in the corner office.  It’s about the system that elevated them to leadership roles, about the values it engenders.  Sandberg is proud of the balance she has achieved – she leaves work at about 5:30 to have dinner and evening with her kids (most days), then gets back to work after she tucks them in.

Packing our corporate and governmental leadership roles with women who think this is a healthy, balanced life will not change a thing.  It would simply be more women tolerating the same “do more with less” work ethic that has burned out and beaten down generations of ambitious aspirants. To the person who invests her life in business as usual in order to obtain Sandberg’s version of success, meaningful change isn’t on the radar.  To assume that she would get to the top and decide to tear down the structures that helped her ascend seems more than a little naive.  It reminds me of what I say to my kids sometimes. “When you get to the be the grown up, you can decide what time to go to bed/what television shows to watch/whether to have ice cream for dinner.”  Of course, we’re banking on the idea that by the time they become adults, they will understand why a good night’s sleep is important, will no longer want to watch SpongeBob, and will know that vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet.

A parking spot isn’t a revolution.

Here’s where I advise caution.  None of this means that Sandberg is a bad person.  It’s not fair to punish her for not writing the book I wish she’d written.  I’m glad she’s brought feminism back to the forefront of our attention.  If I had been her editor, I would have told her to move the last two chapters to the front of the book.  Those chapters hold the substance, in paragraphs like this.

One stumbling block is that many people believe that the workplace is largely a meritocracy, which means we look at individuals, not groups, and determine that differences in outcomes must be based on merit, not gender. Men at the top are often unaware of the benefits they enjoy simply because they’re men, and this can make them blind to the disadvantages associated with being a woman.  Women lower down also believe that men at the tip are entitled to be there, so they try to play by the rules and work harder to advance rather than raise question or voice concerns about the possibility of bias.  As a result, everyone becomes complicit in perpetuating an unjust system.  (p 150)

I imagine sitting around a table with Ms. Sandberg, giving her craft feedback.  Yes, I’d lean in, point to page 150, look her in the eye and say, “I’d like to hear more about this.”

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