Then I started seeing negative "reviews" by people who hadn't read the book, and some very positive reviews by people who had. I decided I would read the book and see what all the fuss was about.
Well, I read the book. But I am still not sure I really understand what all the fuss is about. I am not going to do a comprehensive review- Laura Vanderkam and GMP both have good overviews. On the whole, I liked the book. It is well-researched- Sandberg had research assistance from Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. It is well-written- Sandberg had a professional writing partner named Nell Scovell. Despite this assistance, I am convinced that the opinions and voice are Sandberg's. She does a good job of interleaving the research with personal anecdotes, many of which highlight times when she herself exhibited one of the self-defeating behaviors she discusses or ran afoul of one of the double standards research shows women confront. She also presents some well-thought out ideas for how to handle the double standards in practice. I wish I had read the book before I had my most recent "lost in the labyrinth" moment.
In short, I liked the book and found it useful. I am glad I read it.
But still, the criticisms keep coming, and I find that I'm more interested in discussing those than in discussing the details of the book itself.
There are a lot of criticisms that focus on class- namely that Sandberg is very wealthy and in a senior position in her career, and her ideas are of little value to women in less senior positions. She is accused of neglecting her nanny and writing solely for privileged women like herself. I think that charge is factually true but utterly irrelevant to the book. Sandberg acknowledges her privilege and the limitations of her book. She has not tried to write the feminist book to end all feminist books. Instead, she wrote a business book for women, with a feminist slant. I can't really imagine how she could have written a book that would be relevant to the wide range of women her critics want her to address.
That doesn't mean someone shouldn't write a book about how women in less exalted careers can navigate the murky waters of sexism and classism. It just means that Sandberg would be an odd choice to write such a book. Honestly, I think that if she had tackled such a book, she would have come across as condescending and insulting. She has neither a relevant academic background nor relevant personal experience. She wrote the book she was qualified to write, and I think she did a decent job of acknowledging its limitations.
She does less well at acknowledging the limitations of her book for women of color, though, and I think that she missed an opportunity to extend her argument in an important way by including race. I'll come back to that in at the end of this post, and even if the rest of this post is too long and rambling for you to read, I hope you'll skip down to the end and read that part, because it is very important.
There are also a lot of criticisms about how Sandberg focuses on what individuals can do to succeed in our current environment, rather than on the structural changes that would help to make that environment more fair. She acknowledges this limitation, too, and actually includes a lot of the research about the structural changes that would help. However, the focus of her book is clearly on what she identifies as the internal obstacles women face, saying "these internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment."
I understand the limitations of this approach- and I have run afoul of those myself, most notably in discussions about men, women, and chores. But I think it is still an approach worth exploring, because those of us whose passions lie in business, science, engineering, and other male-dominated fields don't have time to wait for the structural changes. Even if a magical spell overtook all of our politicians today and they started working to dismantle the structural impediments to my success, most of those changes would not be in place in time to really change my career trajectory. The hard truth is that I'm going to have to figure out how to manage my career in the current environment.
I also think that not every woman is cut out to be an activist fighting for structural changes, and that progress is best made by having both activists fighting for change from the outside and "inside agents" working within the system to try to change it from the inside. I personally am a poor candidate for an activist on this issue, but I think I do a decent job bringing changes where I can from my position of moderate influence in my company. I've ensured that the lactation rooms have network access, nudged hiring committees to consider more female candidates, and helped to hire women back into the workforce after extended maternity leaves. I make it possible for everyone on my team to work sane hours and contradict sexist statements when I hear them. Maybe this isn't as powerful as agitating for better laws, but I don't think it is nothing. It is what I can do while also pursuing my interests in science and technology.
So I'll admit I've been really frustrated by some of the criticisms of Sandberg's book, particularly since quite a few seemed to be coming from people who had not read the book and were instead working from Sandberg's TED talk, and because a lot of the criticisms could equally well be leveled at the business books written by men, and yet I've never seen those books subjected to such critiques.
I also think it is worth asking: if Sandberg had written a book that focused on the structural issues, would it be getting the same wide readership? Would it be read by as many techie women? I don't know- but I do know that it is a very good thing if some more techie women learn about the research her book does summarize. As the response to the Donglegate affair indicates, there are a lot of techie women who are woefully unaware of some of the double standards that even women have about women who speak out.
I've seen criticisms that Sandberg's book reads like "Women's Studies 101." That may also be factually accurate. I do not know, because I never took Women's Studies 101. I don't know if my college even offered it. I was too busy taking chemistry, biology, physics, and math courses. I had very little time to take other courses, outside of the distribution requirements of my college (which, since I went to the University of Chicago, were pretty extensive). I suspect a lot of female scientists and techies are in a similar situation. A book that summarizes Women Studies 101 in an engaging and readable way is a useful thing for us.
Now that I've had some time to reflect on the criticisms I've read and the book itself, I find myself considering the possibility that the reactions to it- including my own!- have gotten as fraught and tangled up in emotions as the reactions to discussions about stay at home mothers versus mothers in the workforce. I wonder if we are no longer responding to each others' arguments so much as our own insecurities and past injuries.
I am not yet at the point where I fully understand the insecurities and past injuries on the other side of this divide. I suspect that the feeling that women like me are arguing that anyone can succeed, regardless of the structural difficulties, plays a role. I do not ever intend to argue that, but I can see how it might sometime seem that I think that. Beyond that, I do not know- if you do, please feel free to enlighten me in the comments.
This is my blog, though, so I will put the past hurts I feel out there: that there are some in the feminist community who simultaneously demand I pay fealty to them and their priorities while also demonizing women who have achieved some success in the corporate world. They criticize Marissa Mayer for saying she is not a feminist, but then declare that Sandberg can't be a feminist leader because she is a COO. Now, there may be plenty of reasons to disagree with Sandberg and her type of feminism, but saying she is precluded from being a good feminist leader because of what she does? Well, fine. But then does this feminism exclude me, too? At what rank in the corporate structure do I need to hand in my feminist card? Or is it tied to the amount of money I have? I get the argument for more inclusiveness of women with less power, and I want that, too, but when you start kicking women out for succeeding, then I start to suspect that I'm not welcome, either.
And when you hold only women up to this higher standard for leadership, I see yet another criteria by which I am judged but my male colleagues are not- and believe me, there are already a lot of other criteria that apply to me but not my husband. I want to be clear: I am not saying that people should not criticize Sandberg or Mayer. But when they criticize the female leaders and not Zuckerberg, Brin, and Jobs, then I cannot stop myself from extrapolating to all the criticisms I get that my husband does not. I think about how the question of how much money the workers at our day care center make is laid at my feet, but not his. I think about how people assume that the women who clean our house must be exploited, but do not seem concerned about the men who wash our car. I think about the fact that what I wear to work needs to be carefully calibrated but my husband literally went to work in flip-flops once when he forgot to change into his work shoes.
It may be that my personal reactions are preventing me from engaging with the true arguments in these pieces. Actually, I'm 99% certain that is true. I am so personally hurt and frustrated by watching these feminists hold powerful women to a different standard than they hold powerful men that even though I can understand on an intellectual level why that might be, on an emotional level I need to stop listening. It is getting in the way of me doing what I need to do: pursue my career, reach for success, try to do the "right" thing on my own microscale at work, parent my kids, and just be happy with the life I have.
One of the things I love about social media is the way that I can open myself up to a wide range of viewpoints, almost passively. Just by following people on Twitter and via blogs, I can learn about how people with different backgrounds and priorities approach issues, and I can grow from that. But I have decided I have to stop listening to the feminists who seem to disapprove of me, at least until I have more confidence in whatever power I have in the corporate world and how I use it. I have enough other sources of anti-support in my world, telling me I'm parenting wrong, or working wrong, or not spending enough time with my husband, or ignoring my friendships, or wearing the wrong clothes, or feeding my kids the wrong food, or whatever else I am doing wrong these days. All of these things, incidentally, that no one seems to tell my husband to worry about. I don't need to be told I'm being a feminist wrong, too.
None of the above means that I think Lean In is a perfect book, or that it is above criticism. In fact, as I mentioned above, I was disappointed in how it handled- or really, didn't handle- race. Sandberg barely mentions the way that things are different for white women and women of color. I don't know if she is personally clueless on this, decided she couldn't do the subject justice, or if there is some other reason for the omission. Whatever the reason, it was a huge missed opportunity. Sandberg has her audience all warmed up and ready to think about subtle inequalities and biases of which we are probably unaware. Even if she did not feel that she could adequately handle a discussion of the similar problems with racial biases, she could have given a short summary of some of the research and referred us to other books for more information. But if she does that, I managed to miss it.
Along those lines, Tressiemc has a wonderful piece up about how Lean In is not for her. I urge all of you to go read it, and really think about it.
When I read the book, I saw the problems Tressiemc raises, even though I saw them imperfectly, through my own haze of privilege. I think I have failed to make that clear at times when reacting to the critics of this book. In fact, I may well be one of the "Sandberg pushers" Tressiemc is referencing- although I honestly did not intend to do that. I was looking for someone smart to have read both the Kate Losse's piece in Dissent and Sandberg's book and tell me whether I was missing something or if the Dissent piece did in fact take quotes out of context and distort them away from their intended meaning. I saw Tressiemc and AskMoxie discussing the Dissent piece on Twitter and thought- hey, two smart, articulate women! Maybe they have read both and can tell me what I am missing. So I asked them if they'd read the book. In retrospect, I can see how tiresome my question must have been, particularly for Tressiemc who doesn't have any history with me at all. I was just yet another earnest white women trying to tell her to read this book that was not relevant to her. I am sorry for that- but also not so self-absorbed to think I was the only earnest white woman to pester her about this. And I am glad she wrote her post, so if my social awkwardness on Twitter had any role in that, I guess it is a net positive for the world.
(I never did find someone who could help me see whether or not I am being unfair in my assessment of Losse's piece, and I can't get past the gross distortions I see in her textual analysis to really engage with her argument. But I think I can live with that, and just move on.)
Sandberg may have missed the chance to teach her readers about racial biases, but that does not mean that I have to miss the chance to learn. I think that I could use a similar primer for racism in the workplace. I am confident I would recognize direct racism, but although I am aware subtle racial biases exist, I am not confident that I recognize all of the biases that might be lurking in my subconscious. So I decided to go looking for things to read on the hurdles people of color face in the workplace. This will be an ongoing project. I do not have a Stanford sociologist on staff to do my research, after all.
I started with a Google search, and found a few good things:
- A piece about "transparent barriers" and the white standard. The last line is particularly poignant given how criticisms of the Obama administration have played out.
- An article about how many people of color feel that they can't be their true selves at work.
- An article about how the fact that people of color do not feel comfortable discussing all of their outside activities at work means that companies are often unaware of the leadership experiences those people have.
- How to Get a Black Woman Fired, about the Adria Richards firing and surrounding events.
I'll no doubt blog about what I learn. If you have other books or articles that I should read, feel free to leave them in the comments.
And now I think I am done talking about issues for women in the workplace for the time being. But before I leave the subject for awhile, I welcome your comments on any of the above.
As always when I discuss a potentially sensitive topic, I ask you to be respectful to other points of view, and remember that I have a day job and that the policy at my work precludes me commenting or moderating much during the day. You always are, so I'm not sure why I still feel the need to put this disclaimer. But I do, so here it is.