In case you've been living under a rock, Sandberg's book Lean In talks about about why women are not as successful as men in their careers, and encourages women to stand up for themselves, take risks, sit at the table as if they believe they have something valuable to say, and "don't leave before you leave" (making conservative choices due to fear of inability to juggle everything later on down the road). “Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions,” she writes. The ambition gap, to which women are socialized, is to blame: “My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”
Sandberg's book was probably a necessary counterpoint to Anne-Marie Slaughter's viral article about not being able to have it all, at least not the way society is currently structured. But both women miss the boat when they talk about work ethic and work culture, without talking about the sexism that still persists in work environments everywhere. And I'm not just talking about the sexism that has to do with bias against the competing commitments of parenting. While I don't think that we're going to get anywhere by tearing each other down, I also think that we need to do a lot more than "lean in" if we're really going to change anything.
|photo courtesy of flickr user im pastor rick|
Once upon a time, there was a smart, ambitious woman. She went to college at a reasonably good public university, paying her way almost on her own through scholarships and work-study, and earned a 4.0. She went to graduate school with a full ride, realized that her long-term interests didn't match the program goals, and taking a leap into the unknown, left to join the workforce. She started at the bottom of the ladder at the institution where she was a student, while attending graduate school part-time at night for another doctoral degree. Through hard work and determination and collaboration, and the support of a female supervisor (where leaning in works?), she was promoted. Asked, in a group of leaders at her organization, to come up with some fundraising ideas, she wrote a proposal to build a new program, which a donor endowed at a significant sum, in the millions of dollars. She was asked if she wanted to take on the responsibility for building the program, and won accolades for her work over the next seven years. Her program, which she ran on a shoestring budget, became one of the hallmarks of the institution, and had wide ripple effects.
All was well until she got a new boss, coincidentally, just as she was going to have her second child. She had not "scheduled" this child's arrival as she had tried to schedule previous arrivals because she had already miscarried several pregnancies, and was not longer going to let her job take priority over her body. The new boss seemed supportive of her continued contact with the program during her maternity leave and enthusiastic about her return to the division. He insisted on taking on some of her responsibilities himself, to "ease her mind" about the program's safety.
And then, without her input, hired a brand new just-minted graduate, his former intern, to do the day to day work of the office.
And then, days after she'd had the baby, and after she had made a routine exception as she had been directed by previous supervisors, told this woman she was no longer to respond to any email without his permission. And told her that she had an attitude problem. And then told her she was no longer permitted to respond to any email at all. And then removed her title from her "until further notice."
Then removed her ability to make any significant financial and programmatic decisions. Then cancelled events that she had scheduled before she left (with guest speakers) without informing her. Then informed her that she would have to fire the student staff she'd hired and started to train for the next year. Then hired a faculty member who had never worked with the program before to supervise her, and promoted her assistant out from under her supervision (hiring her assistant's son as his personal assistant, to seal the deal). Then finally, informed her that she would be removing the personal effects from her office so that the new faculty supervisor could use the office whenever he was in the building.
As the months went by from the first event to the last, the woman felt increasingly isolated and anxious about opening her email, wondering what would await her.
Finally, confiding in some other female colleagues, she discovered that she was not alone. That the same thing was happening to other women at this organization. That other senior women had advised them to "lie back and think of England," and go home to a peach Bellini. This was their version of "leaning in." This was how they'd reached the glass ceiling.
She did the only thing it made sense to do at the time: she resigned.
Several others did, too.
Some didn't have this choice, and were restructured out of their jobs.
Meanwhile, her new boss rose up the ranks, hiring mostly inexperienced young men to replace the mostly female staff members who had left or who had been forced out of their positions, and was eventually promoted to a position that put him second in command at the organization. Despite an investigation conducted by the Office of Employment Equity, despite a pending lawsuit, despite confidential union grievances, this man was given a position of immense power. Because his behavior was, apparently, acceptable. Laudable, even.
Friends, this is not a story about lack of ambition. This is not a story about not "leaning in." This is not even a story about embracing a "good enough life." This is a story about a pervasive, sexist culture that continues to be acceptable, not just at this woman's workplace, but at many others. This is the same culture that permits us to limit women's reproductive rights, that permits legislation of women's bodies. This is the same culture that makes the media think they can talk about rape victims as life-ruiners, and rape perpetrators as the ruined.
Sandberg recently created leanin.org in order to "encourage and support women leaning in to their ambitions." And I think that is an important step. We need supportive communities in order to achieve our ambitions. But there is more work to be done. Leaning in is not enough. If we allow discriminatory practices and cultures -- ANYWHERE -- to continue unchecked, then regardless of their leaning, women will continue to struggle to achieve balance, or risk losing their integrity, or risk losing their careers, or risk much worse. In too many places, the choice to "lean in," or not, doesn't even exist.
And really, all people--not just women, but every one of us--deserves better.
Have you experienced a situation in which you've been prevented from "leaning in"? Or have you found or created a"lean in circle" like the ones Sandberg refers to? Do you think that women are the only ones who need this kind of support? In what ways, small or great, do you try to help others to "lean in," even if you don't consider yourself "ambitious"?