Lean In, Don’t Be a Pushover

Posted by savannahkase on August 14, 2013 in Advice, Current Events, Working Mom |

I am halfway through Sheryl Sandberg’s much-discussed woman-power tome, Lean In, which – as I expected – is sparking a lot of questions, revelations, and criticisms that will eventually make their way into this blog.  What I did not expect was to like the book as much as I do.

I understand the perspective, expressed by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times, that Ms. Sandberg “places too much onus on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands and too little on government and employers to provide to better childcare, more flexible jobs and concrete gains.”  I agree that there needs to be changes at the top (it’s absurd to me that the U.S. is one of just three countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave), but I do not think that goal is incompatible with Ms. Sandberg’s call for women to break down internal barriers.  To the contrary, women who endeavor to succeed both in their personal and professional lives are likely to bring us closer to overdue policy changes by attaining leadership positions and by demonstrating that women are capable of meeting high expectations at work while still satisfying their family obligations.  Furthermore, Lean In repeatedly speaks of the need for more family-friendly policies at the national, local, and corporate levels, but suggests that such changes will have little effect if women continue to hold ourselves back.

Although it struck a chord with me before I read the book, I now disagree with Joanne Bamberger’s assertion in USA Today that Lean In is “the latest salvo in the war on moms.”  “Sandberg’s argument that equality in the workplace just requires women to pull themselves by the Louboutin straps,” Ms. Bamberger wrote, is “leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many working mothers who don’t have the income or family luxuries of these uber-women.”  Ms. Bamberger was likening Ms. Sandberg’s message in Lean In to Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, who famously returned to her office two weeks after giving birth and then eliminated the ability to telework for many Yahoo employees.  I think such a comparison is extremely unfair.  Of course, balancing personal and professional commitments is easier when you’re the boss, have a full-time nanny, and/or possess the financial and job security to make professional demands that might not be well received.  Still, Ms. Sandberg’s book offers ways every woman can make her workplace more family-friendly, while Ms. Mayer seems to be eroding the gains women have made to date.

Ms. Sandberg acknowledges that many women do not have the resources to campaign for national policy changes, but encourages us to ask for reasonable accommodations for our workplace, even just for ourselves, since there is a high likelihood of spillover effects.  We do not all need to be petitioning our elected representatives for paid maternity leave and flex-time, but we should not shy away from asking for what we need – whether it is expectant mothers’ parking (Ms. Sandberg’s example in her book) or an ad hoc telework arrangement for when the nanny gets sick.  Ms. Sandberg’s point is that by suffering in silence, we are missing an opportunity to improve circumstances for ourselves and for others.

This makes a lot of sense and sounds simple in theory, but can feel awkward in practice.  Society tells us that working mothers should make every effort to prove to our employers that we are just as committed and capable as anyone else, so asking for special treatment seems unadvisable.  That begs a critical question Ms. Sandberg has yet to answer (remember, I am only halfway through her book so I am hoping it is still to come) – how can working women assert our needs without seeming to be seeking special treatment?

I struggle with this question on a daily basis.  For example, I cannot imagine my male colleagues calling in sick because they are tired, but after being up with my son all night, sometimes I need to take a nap and come in late.  And anytime my husband is in the neighborhood and offers to bring my son by the office, I take a quick break to see them.  I do not know of anyone else in my office whose family visits them at work, but I know most of my colleagues check Facebook, personal email, sports scores, etc. over the course of the day.  Isn’t my child a more worthwhile distraction?  I do not ask permission for these small accommodations, but I am acutely aware (and somewhat defensive) of them.  I wish I could just own them, as Ms. Sandberg urges.

I do have one example of following Lean In’s advice, albeit on a very small scale.  Despite a large “Do Not Disturb” sign that I put on my office door while I am pumping, I was interrupted on several occasions (always by older men, who were at first oblivious to, and then horribly embarrassed by, what was going on).  I finally worked up the courage to ask my boss to use his authority to get my door fixed (it had been installed improperly so wouldn’t close completely) and a lock installed.  It took three months to approach my boss for help, but then my door was fixed within the week.  Not only can I now pump in peace, but hopefully, my colleague who just returned from maternity leave will not have to wait so long to get a lock on her door, since my boss is now aware of the issue and understands its importance.

It seems that Ms. Sandberg’s critics did not read her book.  I am enjoying it, and will report back with more observations/revelations in future posts.

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