Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Well, somebody at Good Letters had to do it: Somebody had to go buy the incessantly-hyped volume Lean In by the stratospherically successful Facebook COO (and mother of two) Sheryl Sandberg, and figure out what’s behind the seemingly endless radio talk shows and online profiles—they have been following me, they have, filling up my car like clouds of incense and dinging on my phone with the book’s mantra-like subtitle, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

I bought this part-memoir, part self-help book on a gorgeous spring weekday when, because I work part-time, I was supposed to be home anyway. Because the pollen was getting to me and I had woken up groggy, my husband generously offered to take the children to school on his way in to work, something that Sandberg would applaud: husbands who will assume major leadership at home are a major key in enabling mothers to succeed.

I stumbled around the house in my nightgown for a while, then finally got dressed and picked up Lean In at the Target in suburban Largo, Maryland, which at ten on a weekday morning, was as silent as a tomb.

I drove half an hour to have lunch with a homeschooling friend, folded laundry and cleaned some grout, picked up my children from school and finally settled down to read the book on the bench at my son’s baseball practice, as the evening sun sank over the trees.

I found myself surprised by how much I enjoyed it: Sandberg, who’s about my age and who shares some of my generational preoccupations, comes across as warm and intimate, gently self-deprecating in describing her own “monkey bar” career path (it’s not a ladder, she says, because you can move sideways too), as well as some of her mistakes.

I happen as well to “work outside the home,” as my mother would say, and I could ruefully relate to many of the problems that Sandberg described about women in the work world: I am not a risk-taker. I have a strong work ethic but insufficient self-confidence. I can’t begin to tell you the ways in which my Southern accent has led complete strangers to assume my complete stupidity. I appreciated Sandberg’s prompting to “sit at the main table” and “speak up during meetings.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the book is written in the flat prose of a corporate trainer, or a guest on Oprah: “When we recognize that we can see things only from our own perspective, we can share our views in a nonthreatening way. Statements of opinion are always more constructive in the first person ‘I’ form,” she observes in a chapter called “Seek and Speak Your Truth.”

I have to admit my own fundamental distaste for the kind of “elite problem-solver” transnational policymaker role that Sandberg holds out as the goal for educated women, something writer Judith Shulevitz referred to in a recent New Republic article as “the folly of Davos-style feminism.”

Sandberg mentions that she was raised to believe in social justice and to seek to change the world, but creating shareholder value and developing creative applications of social media seem like such paltry—and yet self-congratulatory, because it was successful and monetized—efforts to do so.

This is a bug-a-boo of mine, I know: I went to school with some of the smartest people in the country, who studied the greatest works of humankind, and on balance, most of them seem to have gone into high finance or writing for television.

Meanwhile, without a vision, the people perish. How can the elites save the people whom they are nowhere near?

Most ominously, a blogger called “The Last Psychiatrist” cited Sandberg’s book as not inspiring at all, but rather a covert way of cajoling women to be ready, responsive cogs in a work machine that demands almost constant labor, and which forever dangles the threat of downsizing and cutbacks to keep workers in line.

You can flatter yourself that your hard work could, like Sandberg’s, earn the sponsorship of Larry Summers or Mark Zuckerberg, but as a worker without elite connections and stock options, what you’re really committing to by “leaning in” is just working eight to six (or maybe later) instead of the old nine to five.

Sandberg’s big nod to work-life balance is that she leaves the office at 5:30 to go home for dinner with her children, and then spends another couple of hours working at home. Every day!

A couple of days ago in Politico, writer Ann Marie Slaughter of the “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” article from The Atlantic last summer, stated with dismay that the long hours required at high-level jobs are part of what makes it, “so tough for women starting families…this is still a town that basically says in your 30s you have to work around the clock if you want to be somewhere in your 40s.”

Does anybody, male or female, need to work like this? What’s an economy for?

And what does it mean to “be somewhere,” anyhow?

I’m thinking about this in the context of writer Rod Dreher’s recent apologia about his reasons for moving back to Louisiana, narrated in his great new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. He references Washington, not Sandberg’s Silicon Valley, but the point is the same:

It’s like a friend of mine, a Louisiana expatriate working at a good Washington job told me (I paraphrase): “Louisiana is a great place to be mediocre. In Washington, everybody is consumed by ambition. They all want to change the world. In Louisiana, you can be not very successful, and that’s okay, because people will still love you and invite you to the crawfish boil.”

I love you all, Good Letters readers. I’m leaving the office at 4:30 for baseball practice, but I promise I will go check and see if there are any crawfish at the Largo Target.

  • Tracy Dowling

    Being retired and having left the so-called work world some four years ago (for good, I hope) I haven’t read Leaning In. Being the sort that jealously guarded my time with family and if it must be said, my time to do nothing at all, I didn’t raise particularly high in the work-a-day world.
    Once I was young and ambitious however, and was brought up short one day by a question from an old (an it must be said, rather crafty and sarcastic) Croatian priest “Do you enjoy your work?”
    “Of course,” I told him. (Years later I would come to the admission, well no, I hadn’t enjoyed it much at all.) He then went on to say “Why are you so masochistic? Work is the punishment for sin” and he went on to quote the appropriate scripture.
    Punishment or no, we all have to work. But as a Christian I am called the work of God…which is listening to others, caring for my family, and if it must be said, enjoying life, whatever I am doing, living in eucharistic thanksgiving, always and everywhere. What would St. Francis think of our work ethic?
    A professional life is a worthy aim to a point…but the root of the word amatuer is love…and perhaps the world simply needs a few less superstars and more holy amatueurs…more people who simply do good to and for one another instead of those who seek to save mankind.

    • Caroline

      Dear Tracy– That quotation from the Croatian priest is one I will take with me for the future, any time I start to get idolatrous about my work or, indeed, any other achievements. You should read Rod’s book…it makes this exact point…

  • Allison Backous Troy

    I love this, mostly because it asks questions about how much work is too much – as I prepare to leave my current job, which demanded that kind of exhausting energy, this is incredibly helpful.

  • Theresa

    Your Good Letters always grab my attention. I look forward to your comments
    on women, work, Christianity, the Washington culture in particular. I moved here as a young woman, and thirty years later, I’m still finding my way among the tensions you describe with humor and compassion.

    • Caroline

      Teresa–Thank you so much for your good words! I’d love to meet for a coffee in person sometime: Feel free to write to me at carolinejarboe at yahoo…

      Peace,

      Caroline

  • http://www.jenniferannemosesarts.com jennifer moses

    Love it.
    Especially the part about Louisiana v. DC v. corporate cogs v. people with souls. I was raised in DC, then lived, for a long time, in Baton Rouge, and to this day I’d rather live in Baton Rouge, where eccentrics bloom like dandilions, to DC with its wall-to-wall Ivy-educated lawyers.

  • Taylor Olsen

    Tracy, I love your comment on needing fewer superstars and more holy amateurs–I just quoted it on Image Journal’s Facebook and Twitter. I hope that’s ok!

  • Anya Silver

    Yes! Yes! Is the ideal world really one based on corporate values of nonstop work for dubious social good? Do women OR men want to live like Sandberg suggests? No, thank you. I’d rather work fewer hours in the office, make less money, and live in the provinces so that I have time to read, write, spend time with my family and hopefully, through teaching, make a positive difference in the world. I’ll never be part of the economic or political elite, and I don’t want to be. I’d rather be right where I am. Maybe women have simply rejected the CEO philosophy before men will.

  • Anya Silver

    Yes! Yes! Is the ideal world really one based on corporate values of nonstop work for dubious social good? Do women OR men want to live like Sandberg suggests? No, thank you. I’d rather work fewer hours in the office, make less money, and live in the provinces so that I have time to read, write, spend time with my family and hopefully, through teaching, make a positive difference in the world. I’ll never be part of the economic or political elite, and I don’t want to be. I’d rather be right where I am. Maybe women have simply rejected the CEO philosophy before men will.

  • Anya Silver

    Yes! Yes! Is the ideal world really one based on corporate values of nonstop work for dubious social good? Do women OR men want to live like Sandberg suggests? No, thank you. I’d rather work fewer hours in the office, make less money, and live in the provinces so that I have time to read, write, spend time with my family and hopefully, through teaching, make a positive difference in the world. I’ll never be part of the economic or political elite, and I don’t want to be. I’d rather be right where I am. Maybe women have simply rejected the CEO philosophy before men will.

  • Anya Silver

    Yes! Yes! Is the ideal world really one based on corporate values of nonstop work for dubious social good? Do women OR men want to live like Sandberg suggests? No, thank you. I’d rather work fewer hours in the office, make less money, and live in the provinces so that I have time to read, write, spend time with my family and hopefully, through teaching, make a positive difference in the world. I’ll never be part of the economic or political elite, and I don’t want to be. I’d rather be right where I am. Maybe women have simply rejected the CEO philosophy before men will.

  • Anya Silver

    Sorry–didn’t mean to leave the same darn message four times!

  • Caroline

    Hi Anya- I don’t mind at all. Let’s think of it as an exclamation point for emphasis! Although I do think they might take one or more iterations out…

    So good to hear your words here…

  • Chad

    So are you coming to the crawfish boil?

    • Caroline

      OOOh– what day is it again? I think it’s the $$$ not the time but let me check.

      Of course, you all could just come bring some over!

  • http://www.nancynordenson.com Nancy

    I put this book on my to-read list after I heard Sandberg interviewed on 60 Minutes a couple months ago, but I haven’t read it yet. Part of me resonated with what she said, that hesitancy to aim for or take leadership positions for lots of good but maybe misguided reasons; but part of me thought the same thing you did, isn’t this just bracing ourselves for working even longer and harder than we already do?


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