Leaning in With Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board of Facebook, speaks during a panel session at the 43rd Annua
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board of Facebook, speaks during a panel session at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Keystone/Jean-Christophe Bott)

Sheryl Sandberg has thrown down the gauntlet. According to advance press about her new book Lean In, Ms. Sandberg believes that women's failure to advance to high echelons of leadership is in part attributable to our own lack of ambition and under-developed self-confidence. I admire Sandberg's vision and ambition, and since her new book isn't out yet, I decided to go back and read her 2012 Commencement Speech at Barnard. I was absolutely startled when I got to the following paragraph:

I have a 6-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. I want more choices for both of them. I want my son to have the choice to be a full partner not just at work, but at home; and I want my daughter to have a choice to do either. But if she chooses work, to be well-liked for what she accomplishes. We can't wait for the term "work/life balance" to be something that's not just discussed at women's conferences.

Why on earth, in 2011/12, is it still assumed that one's son will inevitably work, but one's daughter will work IF SHE CHOOSES TO? Why should the son get to choose whether or not to be a full partner in the household? Why should the daughter have the choice to pursue either work or full-time parenting, and not the son? What kind of signal does this send, not only to our children, but to their potential employers? I was astonished that even the uber-successful Ms. Sandberg had fallen into this trap. The notion that work is a choice for most women is disingenuous and destructive. Most women can't afford to be full-time mothers, even if they wanted to -- it takes two people to pay the rent, buy the food, support the education, supplement the health care and so on. So the "choice" about work is the purview of a tiny group of elite women, while most women in American necessarily do double duty. When will we stop pretending it is otherwise? Putting forth the fallacy of choice about work permits the status quo to continue unabated, since it is all too easy for employers to say that if work/life balance for mothers is too difficult, those tired mothers should just choose to stay home. No one ever seems to say that about fathers.

Furthermore, the fallacy that if you just choose "your passion," you will love your work, seems equally disingenuous. Do all men love their work? Are most men following their passion any more than women? Work is work. It isn't always delicious or inspiring or happiness-making. But it is necessary for survival, and women should have access to it on equal terms and for equal pay. There is nothing like a paycheck to induce autonomy and a feeling of self-worth, even if the pay is for a less than inspiring job. Sandberg is utterly right that your success as a working mother has everything to do with how participatory your partner is and how much help you can afford to hire. But if the husband always has it in the back of his mind that his wife could at any moment "choose" not to work, the chances that he will contribute to fifty percent of the household work are slim. Equal opportunity means equal responsibility. If we want to be taken as seriously as men, we have to take the good and the bad of work just as men do. Everyone isn't going to have a dream job. Everyone isn't as visionary or ambitious as Sandberg. That doesn't mean women shouldn't all assume that a) they are going to work and b) they have a right to be paid the same and treated the same as their male counterparts.

Where I think Sandberg is absolutely right is the way in which women sabotage themselves through lack of self-confidence and ambition. We naturally want to please. We hate to be attacked in public. We are told we are ambitious creeps when we succeed, whereas men are admired for their achievements. And it is certainly true that when we succeed, we often attribute our success to external factors more than to our own talent and drive. How we can keep our heads down and keep doing the work in spite of criticism is indeed a major question. But this is why, again, I think it's unhelpful to proffer the false wand of "choice." Aren't women less motivated to stick it out through withering criticism and stressful failures if in the back of our minds we know we can "opt out" at a moment's notice? It's hard to stay in the race if the culture tells you that sitting on the grass is a fine option.

Now, maybe sitting on the grass SHOULD be an option. Everyone isn't ambitious and eager to fight the fight and stay in the game. Our culture is full of examples of successful people who have chosen to leave the rat race. But when they are men, they usually do so from a position of strength. Women tend to drop out when they can't find enough hours in the day to succeed at work and keep their children and home life happy. And that's a shame. The more we relieve women of the obligation to be "perfect" mothers, the better off we will all be.

Lately, I've been reading about the "good enough parenting" movement, which has made me smile and which certainly holds some truth: The energy that parents, particularly mothers, spend in self-flagellation could be so much better deployed in creative energy at work. It's too bad that many people will discount Sandberg's perceptions about working women because "she is rich and has so much help." Why does that discount her point of view? God knows she has earned her own money. And "help" is the dirty secret that working women refuse to talk about but is absolutely central to success in the workplace. The flip side of the myth of the perfect mother is the lie that we can work all day and run a household at night without really good help. If we created a tax incentive in this country for people to pay household help well instead of penalizing them, perhaps the situation would change, but that appears to be political suicide because it is considered shameful for women to admit that other people are involved in the raising of their children. I remember calling my mother when my own children were young, and weeping that they were going to think the nanny was their mother instead of me... to which my mother laughingly replied that I was nuts and my children were fine. Indeed, whatever else I have done right or wrong, my two remarkable grown children call me often and seem happily aware that I am their mother.

I'm not sure what gives some people the resilience and desire to keep going while others get exhausted and want to stop. Perhaps Sandberg is right that women need female support groups to keep them focused on the job at hand. My own working life has certainly been infinitely enriched by women who were fighting the same fight and could give me support and confidence along the way. Perhaps it would help if we acknowledged that all leadership is stressful, that being on top of your field is not any more a recipe for happiness for men than for women, but that is no reason that women shouldn't be equally represented, because through leadership comes power, and through power comes the opportunity to effect change.

I am "leaning in" with Sheryl Sandberg -- and I can't wait to see what fireworks her new book is going to engender, so to speak.