Thursday, June 20, 2013

NaBloPoMo: The Trouble With (Just) Leaning In

I had hesitated to post this, but I found out recently that Sheryl Sandberg will be one of the keynote speakers at BlogHer, and I felt that it was worth putting out there.  I am looking forward to hearing what Sandberg has to say, because I hope that she will be offering a more robust and complex solution to women's marginalized space in the workforce than I feel she offered in her book.

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
Case in point: let me tell you a little story.  I have removed names and as much identifying information as I can to protect those who were involved, but rest assured that this story is real, and that it is far from ancient history.  I know this woman.  And this is the landscape of now.


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 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"?
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  1. I don't lean in. I lack the ambition. The best I can manage is to show up, which is not how one becomes a CEO.

    I try to encourage others to lean in, if that's what they want. I will watch their kids when I can, and will happily sit down with a glass of wine or a cup of tea to talk strategy.

    And just yesterday I may have convinced as many as three people that the names of women's body parts as insults for men was probably not a good idea. You're welcome for that.

  2. I've never thought of myself as "ambitious" exactly, only I know I want to do the best with the education and abilities I have.

    There will always be sexist !@@$heads, or just ##$%heads, like the fellow in your story. I think the important part is that they are not allowed to get away with being jerks. People within the organizations and in the media, men and women, need to call them on their actions.

    I have not worked under a person as obnoxious as the one in your story, but I have been in a position where I had to stand up to people at work. What I learned from that experience is that when people say "This is wrong, this has to change" it does make a difference. As long as the organization is still at least partly healthy. In a dysfunctional organization or company, what can you do but run? And in the end it's going to be the business that pays the price of chasing away talented people, men and women.

    I fully support more family-friendly practices in the workplace (and am lucky to work in a field where such practices do exist, perhaps because a lot of the workforce is women who have/want children). On the other hand, I don't think there's any way to compare having a child to another work project. A child isn't a career your can change or leave. You will never not be that child's mother. There's no contest.

  3. As Jennifer said, I don't lean in because I've never been particularly ambitious *in that way*. My own ambitions are simpler ones less likely to be hampered by idiots, unless I am the idiot.

    The place I worked the longest was very family-friendly and more of the bosses seemed to be female than male, so I "grew up" in my career thinking that the glass ceiling was a thing of the past. Sadly, I hear from friends that this is not the case.

  4. Own stocks. Vote against management proposals to add more men to board of dirctors when over 1/2 of board of directors are not female. Leaning in is cute idea but power is in voting.

  5. Wow. Just, wow. When I was fresh out of undergrad I found my female boss was my wall to moving up in the organization. I was hired part time with the deal that it would go full time. I worked there for 3 years and it never went full time. I stupidly stayed because finding work in my field in the area I lived was hard and eventually I was laid off because they "had budget cuts". I didn't point out that they just bought a dozen brand new computers and other machinery for staff that were suddenly out of a job. I held my tongue about how I did half the work in the office, including my supervisor's, but somehow didn't warrant full time hours. Meanwhile my supervisor watched soap operas and took naps in her office..and her yearly eval included such gems as "wear shoes" for areas of improvement. I was so demoralized by those three years. So disenfranchised. I still find it hard to stand up and take control of my career, which is why my business is stagnating instead of growing as it should. :/

  6. I work in a small branch of a big multinational company. Because we're small but have the backing of a big company, we can create our own culture to an extent. There are five of us who are mothers and four of us are now working a four-day-week with one day from home. We've somehow made this the accepted norm and it's working really well - we discuss together to find ways to make our work hours fit around our home lives and give each other advice when looking for approval for changes in work conditions without being "written off" as mothers who are no longer interested. So I guess this is our version of creating a supportive lean-in environment. I really enjoyed your post - it's a topic that could be and should be discussed more

  7. I'm really mad about what happened to the woman you know. I'm not sure I believe it has as much to do with gender as with general smarminess and tacit approval by those in charge.

    Which are still often men, so maybe this is a gender thing. And it did have something to do with the woman's child-bearing absence, so maybe this is a gender thing.

    I haven't leaned in for an organization for many years now. I feel that I have leaned in in my own pursuits and I've found an incredibly supportive bunch of generous, savvy and powerful women.

    I hope, as I head back to the workforce, that I can find such a community there.

    I hope your friend gets justice somehow, and that Mr Smarmy is exposed.

  8. I am in the middle of reading Sandberg's book right now. I wrote a couple of previous posts about the buzz around her book, & my own work experiences:

    I have never experienced anything quite as blatant as the case you described, but subtle sexism? Absolutely. I will never forget being in a meeting where I made an observation... nobody said anything. About 10 minutes later, one of the guys at the table said exactly the same thing I had in almost exactly the same way -- & got laughter & nods. I'd heard about this happening to other women, but to have it happen to me like that -- my jaw just about hit the floor.

  9. The problem with the women in your story is that it is such an insidious kind of sexism that it's hard to pin down and protest. It's not overt discrimination - there's always an excuse "Well, she was out of the office, and we needed a response RIGHT NOW." "She couldn't be available for the conference call." "The venue changed XXXX in the contract for the event, and it wasn't acceptable, so we cancelled." You know it's happening, but it's so hard to prove and therefore so hard to stamp it out.

    My workplace has had that kind of attitude, but since I work for state government, it has been very difficult for them to be too sexist, at least in the field in which I work. Other areas have overt and covert sexism, but mine has been decent.

  10. I had an experience that was very similar to the one in your was actually a little bit freaky to read. :) However, my experience was with a female supervisor. I don't know quite what to make of that other than the idea that we need to remember women do this to other women too.

    I think the previous comment is right. Leaning in is a quaint idea. Power is in numbers and votes. We can't forget that.


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