01 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Lean In – only “half a loaf”?


“Half a loaf” is Lean In, the much talked about recent book by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg; at least according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, another outspoken member of the upper echelons of America’s executive workforce, in her New York Time review,Yes, You Can.  And so it goes on, the bickering among feminists which has to have bogged down real progress for the likes of Sandberg and Slaughter, namely highly educated, ambitious women throughout the western world who trying to succeed at work and at home at the same time.

According to Sandberg (in her first chapter), “a truly equal world would be where women run half our countries and companies and men run half our homes.”  I am not sure I agree with her fundamental premise.  She ignores the possibility that men and women may prefer to spread their time running things at both work and home.  They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor would they want to be.  I query whether it is realistic to expect anyone with a tertiary education (her main audience) to want to run things at home alone, at least for long.  It fails to utilise their skills and leaves them financially vulnerable.  What about if couples were to share the breadwinning and care-giving which 2010 published research suggests most of them want to do? (The Unfinished Revolution, Kathleen Gerson)

While Sandberg accepts that women and men, while equally ambitious, often set different goals and that there are biological differences between them, she seems to put all that to one side devoting much of the book to urging women to behave more like men. “Bill like a boy” she urges even if that means charging clients for time spent thinking in the shower.  It seems to me men would be better advised to “bill like a girl”, girls apparently having has fairer a notion of what should be charged .

But the book is certainly not all about behaving like a man. Sandberg encourages employees to be more honest at work about their personal lives if it impacts upon their work. While she is wary that some employers would question your commitment, she believes an honest approach is more likely to encourage greater support and flexibility.  Sandberg believes there is a shift towards authenticity and away from perfection.

Not that Sandberg was always honest herself.  She tells a story about her own experience as a nursing mother.  She would sometimes pump milk (electronically) at work during conference calls.  If someone said “what’s that noise?”,  she would say it was “the fire truck over the street”  until one day she got busted for trying it on someone in the same building who could see there was no fire truck!  Funny story but I have to say the notion of pumping at work or anywhere for that matter is not to be encouraged.  I am sure it is better for baby and mother to have breast milk delivered personally in the time honoured way (all that warmth and bonding).  I did the pump thing myself from time to time and absent the loving gaze of my baby; Iv’ve never felt more like a cow.

A lot of the advice Sandberg gives is sound, based on her own experience and that of her colleagues.  Perhaps the best advice of all, directed at women, is to choose their partner wisely, to choose one that is prepared to do his or her fair share of the domestic load.  She also provides plenty of solid statistics to back up her assertions.  She was very fortunate, as her acknowledgements at the end reveal, to have great support including a “writing partner” and a sociologist from Stanford, an expert on gender and social inequality, to do her research.  However she did make a few bald assertions that might deserve more back-up, such as “If there was a right way to raise kids, everyone would do it.  Clearly that is not the case.”  Well maybe there is no definitive ‘right way’ but we do know quite a lot about good and bad parenting to which Sandberg might have paid more attention.  It is probably the case, based on the research, that children do not suffer having working mothers and fathers, but the impact of the way they work on children is clearly a relevant consideration to parents when making decisions about their careers, especially women.  I would like to know more about the impact of various work models on overall family health.

All in all, Sandberg establishes the case that the exodus of highly educated women is a major contributor to the female leadership gap and that this is not a good thing.  She also firmly establishes that women’s  failure to ‘lean in’ has something to do with it.  However, her key omission is to confront the other key reason why women opt out, not because they can’t lean in, but because they don’t want to, given the intransigent demands of the corporate workplace.  As she said herself of Larry Kanerek, in charge of McKinsey in Washington DC, “McKinsey would never stop making demands on our time, so it was up to us to decide what we were willing to do.  It was our responsibility to draw the line.”  Really?  What about the firm’s responsibility to look after the welfare of their employees?  What about the sustainability of making endless demands on their staff, most of whom have demanding lives at home?

This is where Slaughter comes in.  And I am with Slaughter on this. Sure employees need to “lean in” if they want to succeed but so do employers need to “give way” now that women make up roughly half of the workforce.  There should be more scope for men and women to succeed, working hours they can manage while they do their share of work at home, in particular the care of children.  This is the part that is missing from Sandberg’s book.

I applaud Sandberg for writing this book.  She has played a key part in reopening the debate as has Slaughter.  Both women are to be admired for their candour, something that is often missing in the debate.  I only wish the two of them would get together to produce a joint communiqué reconciling both sides of the story.


Leave a Reply