Recently in the news, several women have attained high-profile positions in major corporations. Melissa Meyer is the CEO of Yahoo, appointed by the board when she was seven months pregnant. Mary Barra was elevated to the CEO’s seat at GM, a first for a legacy automaker. Sheryl Sandberg has risen from a Harvard undergrad to having an important role at Google and is now the COO at Facebook. She is not just a C-Level officer though. With her speeches and TED talks and now with a bestselling book, Sandberg has become a voice of her generation. Her message is that women should not disqualify themselves from the career ladder by the choices they make. There are larger structural issues that have long prevented women from attaining high levels in the corporate world. Sexism, in spite of several waves of feminism still hinders both sexes in the work place. Sandberg focuses on the micro scale actions that women can take to ensure that opportunity will be available for themselves as they themselves will be available. As an ally, the question arose as to what men can do to help women lean in. The structural issues are at play as well. No single man can pull down the walls of the old boy’s club. However, in this paper I will argue that there are specific actions that men can make at the micro scale to facilitate women who wish to lean in. I will look at what men and partners can do in terms of mentoring women; supporting their partners at home; and hiring practices that can chip away at the structural issues that seem so daunting.
Where are the Women?
I am a child, a brother, and a spouse of wonderful women. I love them and I want them to do well in their lives and careers. But you don’t have to fill any of those roles or think the women in your life are particularly outstanding to see the structural inequity built into the current corporate order. After many year of gains, women today make up 47 percent of the labor force (“Nine Facts,” 2014, p. 9). They are going to college and attaining degrees at a higher rate than men are. For example, recently published research by the White House Council of Economic Advisors shows that “[i]n 1968, women made up less than 10 percent of the entering classes of MD, JD, and MBA programs, but the share of female students has grown to nearly 50 percent in each program.” (“Nine Facts,” 2014, p. 9-10). While a disinterested observer can applaud these gains, there is still much more distance to be closed.
There is still the pay gap, where a woman is said to earn as little as 77 cents for every dollar a man earns (“Nine Facts,” 2014, p. 5). Women are forced into the double bind where they have to be seen as competent in the workforce and still be sexual beings. This is reinforced on our girls even now, with a new entrepreneur Barbie, as Megan Garber (2014) points out in the Atlantic:
Entering the entrepreneurial world, this independent professional is ready for the next big pitch. Barbie Entrepreneur doll wears a sophisticated dress in signature pink that features modern color blocking and a sleek silhouette. Her "smartphone," tablet and briefcase are always by her side. And luxe details, like a glam necklace, cool clutch and elegant hairstyle, are awesome extras for a smart, stylish career woman. Includes dressed-for-business Barbie doll and stylish accessories: clutch, briefcase, tablet, and smartphone. (emphasis added)
This is a world where you can succeed as a woman but you need your accessories.
Some women have broken through to leadership positions in major corporations, meeting expectations driven by educational progress. Their names are in the business press and in the introduction. The problem is that there are so few women in leadership positions that it is easy to run down their names and they stick out just for existing.
What concerns me is that there is a loss of talent between when women leave their schools and professional programs and when they should be at the peak of their careers. At the very top, as Claire Miller (2014) notes in the New York Times, “On our annual list of the 200 highest-paid chief executives in the United States, there were just 11 women. That’s 5.5 percent of the total, and similar to the 4.9 percent representation of female chief executives at the 1,000 biggest companies.” Stats like that would be funny if they were not so sad.
Many explanations exists for this gap. The easiest one to say is that there is an old-boys network that reinforces itself. Boards are stocked with the same men from the same business schools, and they hire their friends and acquaintances to fill the executive seats. Perhaps that is too broad a stroke to draw, but it has been renamed “cultural fit.” Writing for Bloomberg Business Week Logan Hill (2013) explored this new boy’s network:
““A lot of times, cultural fit is used as an excuse” for feelings interviewers aren’t comfortable expressing, says Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resources and Management. “ “Maybe a hiring manager can’t picture himself having a beer with someone who has an accent. Sometimes, diversity candidates are shown the door for no other reason than that they made the interviewer a little less at ease.””
The negative effects of a lack of diversity at the upper levels is not just scorekeeping and ticking off of boxes. Capitalism and the patriarchy may be two self-reinforcing institutions, but they can work at cross-purposes. For example, new research has shown that women employees can help drive innovation and better target female customers and employees (“Nine Facts,” 2014, p. 10). Even more importantly for a public company, having women on the board increases share prices and promotes a better return on equity (Morgenson, 2014). The important point here is that having women in leadership positions is not a zero-sum game. There is not a set amount of board positions or a lump of money that has to be divided evenly, where shutting out women increased the share for men. Having women on boards and celebrating diversity grows the pie for everyone.
This gap is what concerns Sheryl Sandberg as well. By this point, she has spread her message of leaning in through many forums. Sandberg has a successful TED talk that has been watched almost4.5 million times; she has a national number one bestseller with the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013); she has extended the franchise with a social network where women can form “Lean In Circles” where women can encourage each other; finally, she has put out a new expanded edition of her book branded for college graduates.
Lean In has a basic message for women – lean in! But what is leaning in? In broad strokes it is accepting that the structural limitations for success of women exist and empowering women who by giving them a blueprint for growth both inside and outside of the workplace. It is about setting boundaries and working towards a more equitable world.
There are twelve chapters, and they all speak an empowering truth that does not come across too much like a self-help book. In the introduction, Sandberg posits that we can have a more equal world, “one where women ran half of countries and companies and men ran half our homes” (p.7). Chapter two speaks to the gap between college success and the amount of leaders in commerce and industry, which Sandberg inverts, saying that though there are the structural issues holding women back, there are in fact issues internal to women, in that there is a “Leadership Ambition Gap” (p. 12). Though not included here in the book, this for me is well illustrated with one fact: “A recent McKinsey & Company study reported that internal research at Hewlett Packard found that women only applied to open positions if they felt they met 100 percent of the criteria, compared to only 60 percent for men.” (Kenal, 2012) Men are not afraid to ask for a job even if they’re not qualified because they think they can do the job or learn on the job. Women, conversely, opt out, since as Sandberg notes, “Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don’t expect to achieve them and that becomes one of the reasons they don’t.” (p. 22).
After Sandberg describes what she sees as the problem, she has some concrete advice that can be applied more generally. Chapter two, titled “Sit at the Table,” encourages women to do just that. Generally, women might exclude themselves from conversation by sitting back even when they are invited to literally sit at the table (p. 27). Charisma has an important role in leadership, and getting people to like you can be a difficult battle for anyone in the workplace. Chapter three focuses on the paradoxical nature of success for women. Studies have shown that successful men are often well liked. The converse is true for women. The more successful a woman is, people of both genders will like her less (p. 40). This is, Sandberg posits, because there are so few women in powerful roles and their otherness makes them a source for scorn. She is hopeful though, for a time when more women have leaned in so that “If women held 50 of top jobs, it would not be possible to dislike that many people” (p. 50). Chapter four emphasizes that there are many ways to the top by bringing a metaphor about a jungle gym to replace the common perception of a ladder. Chapter five focuses on mentorship, the importance of finding on the way up, and of being one once you are at the top. She notes the potential weakness of this because there are so many more men than women at the top, so mentorship as existing reinforces the old-boys network (p. 71). Chapter six, “See and speak your truth exhorts women to not hold back in communication, but to be smart about it, so that “Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest” (p. 78). So once you have joined your place at the table, you need to speak up.
Chapter seven, for me, is the heart of the book, mainly because I can relate to the situation. In “Don’t Leave Before You Leave,” Sandberg’s message is simple – go full bore until you can no longer go. Take the opportunities that are presented to you and don’t turn them away because of choices you might make in the future. Sandberg illustrates this well with a story of a women worried about work-life balance in the future with a child. The kicker being that the women was not even seeing anyone at the time (p. 92). By disqualifying yourself because of these future decisions, you put yourself on the track to not have other opportunities in the future, ironically limiting your future options. Chapter eight focus on the home, making sure that your partner is a full participant at home. This has added benefits, as research shows that equality between partners leads to happier relationships (p. 118). This is improving, since partnership is a micro-level issue that happens “one family at a time” and men of younger generations are more willing to be equitable partners (p. 120). Chapter nine tries to break down the “Myth of Doing It All,” where Sandberg recognizes that there are limits to how much one can do in the day when it comes to family, work, and personal time. She knows that you can’t do everything and we should be able to accepts that “Done is better than perfect” (p. 129) in terms of the accomplishing goals (a mantra I myself want to adopt). She tells a story of forgetting her son’s green t-shirt on Saint Patrick’s day to show that she herself can be fallible. The chapter closes with her definition of success: “Making the best choices we can…and accepting them” (p. 139). The last two chapters are about naming the problem, starting a dialogue based on the recommendations in the book, and moving forward to creating a world where those fifty percent of companies and households are led by women in a more equal society. Importantly, Sandberg recognizes some of the limitations of leaning in, noting “I am fully aware that most women are not focused on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day” (p. 169). Ultimately, the book is structured in a way that describes the problem, outlines solutions, and provides a way forward for people to make these changes. Thankfully, these are not those broad policy prescriptions that have no hope of being enacted, but instead they are actions most women can make so that they are not left behind.
Sandberg has not been without her critics, however. Writing in The Baffler, Susan Faludi (2013) attacks Sandburg’s focus on the individual, lamenting, “If you were waiting for someone to lean in for child care legislation, keep holding your breath. So far, there’s no discernible groundswell.” (“Facebook Feminism”), as well as the idea that Sandberg is operating from a place of privilege, having already attained high success just from the network she was able to develop at Harvard—including a connection with Larry Summers. Faludi also laments the corporate buy-in for the Lean In movement: That Lean In is making its demands of individual women, not the corporate workplace, is evident in the ease with which it has signed up more than two hundred corporate and organization “partners” to support its campaign. (“Facebook Feminism”). Sandberg does acknowledge her own place of privilege, and the options available to her, but the book is not about the larger policy moves we could hopefully initiate. The beauty, and a weakness, of lean is is that it accepts the status quo and is not utopian.
Other critics have focused on the class issue that Lean In raises. In a roundtable for The Nation , Kathleen Greier points out “Different classes of women—low-income women who make up over half of minimum wage earners, middle-income women whose wages have stagnated for a decade and elite women seeking to shatter glass ceilings—have needs and problems that look very different from one another.” (“Class Problem”). This is a valid critique. The needs of people are different, and the roles in society are not homogeneous. Lean In is biased towards the middle-class, office worker in a knowledge industry. But for the target audience, it is an especially apt book.
Finally, there is a critique by attacking Sandberg herself. In an essay republished by the Washington Post, subtitled “Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg,” Rosa Brooks focuses on Sandberg as an outlier: Some college students, like my friend Suzanne, take aerobics classes. Some college students, like Sheryl Sandberg, teach aerobics classes (“Recline”). This essay caused a lot of consternation with people, especially as it focused on a common misreading of Sandberg, thinking that she was advocating it all: “It’s hard enough managing one 24/7 job. No one can survive two of them. And as long as women are the ones doing more of the housework and childcare, women will be disproportionately hurt when both workplace expectations and parenting expectations require ubiquity.” (“Recline”) When Brooks missed the point by not reading the chapter that was specifically about drawing boundaries on what was possible within your life.
Overall, I understand that Sandberg can be a polarizing figure. She is amazingly successful, and she is young and pretty and as we already learned, people hate successful women. You don’t have to look hard for negative portrayals of successful women in the media who are often lambasted just for their gender. For what Lean In is about though, and it’s aims, I am fully supportive of the aims of lean in. The problem, is leaning in is not enough.
More than Leaning In
As supportive as I am of Lean In there is one thing that is largely absent from the conversation: Men. Sandberg devotes a chapter of the book to partners. It however, is weak in terms of what men can do because the book is aimed towards women. The criticism of the book is more women talking to women. It is as if the national conversation around Lean In was just women talking to and criticizing other women and men were left free of criticism because Sandberg’s camp is about what an individual woman can do in the face of the status quo.
I was enchanted by Sandberg’s message because I at times can be both disenchanted with the current state of the world and pessimistic about my own personal ability to change the world. So I went and I tried to find what I could do as a man and a husband and a future business leader to help women “Lean In.” It turns out that there is not much literature on the subject. I took the opportunity to email the Lean In organization on advice on how to be an ally. I was pointed to the writings Kenal Modi, who is a recent graduate of Harvard Business School and affiliated with the organization – and that was it. My theory is that the potential tiles went unwritten, lacking for a clever pun.
So with the paucity of info out there specifically about how men can help women leaning in, I would like to posit some possibilities. First off, make room at the table. If you are in a situation where there are women involved, treat them as equals. Invite their opinions and listen to them. It doesn’t matter what their positions are, as long as men don’t accept women as equals or listen to their opinions, no leaning in will help. The second leads from the first – don’t judge women who are successful. If a woman is your superior then listen to the advice and the lessons she has learned. It will benefit you to listen; after all, she had to work twice as hard as any man to get where she is.
The third piece of advice is to be a real partner. If you have kids, do an equal amount of the childcare, and accept it as a gift and a responsibility. Share the chores so that this gap keeps closing: “In 1965, fathers spent 49 hours per week doing paid work and taking care of their family; in 2012 that jumped to 54 hours per week. Fathers are doing 4.6 more hours of child care per week and 4.4 more hours of housework per week, yet two thirds of men and nearly three quarters of women think that men should be spending more time caring for children.” (“Nine Facts” 2014, p. 6). You are not babysitting you children. You are parenting them. Being a supportive partner goes beyond the fact that we should move towards equality in the chores – it is not just about the proper allocation of the second shift. Being supportive also means that you encourage the actions that Sandberg recommends. You know the facts and if a position opens up, that she might want to take, you talk about it with her in terms of its effects on both of you, not just the sacrifices that you will have to make.
Fourthly be a mentor. If you are in a position of leadership or supervision, support your female employees in their career in both their current tasks and whatever their aims might be. Tear down the walls of the old boy’s club and welcome everyone in. Volunteer yourself and your experience, but be open and aboveboard about it least there be any thought of impropriety.
Finally, if you’re in a leadership position at work, you can institute hiring practices that work to eliminate anti-female bias. Sandberg points out that gender-blind evaluations have better outcomes for women (Lean In, 2013 p. 152), and there are companies that are deliberately enforcing quotas on themselves, committing to having at least 30 percent of their board members as women (Miller, 2013).
The important thing is to be conscious of the structural inequities that women face and to make your decisions at work and home so that your actions facilitate women who are leaning in, and even those who aren’t. It is one small step and then another, but by these actions we can start closing that achievement gap and have a better world.
Brooks, Rosa. (Feb 23, 2014) Recline, Don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg). Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2014/02/25/recline-dont-lean-in-why-i-hate-sheryl-sandberg/
Faludi, Susan . (No. 23 2013) Faceboook Feminism, Like it or Not. The Baffler. Retrieved from http://thebaffler.com/past/facebook_feminism_like_it_or_not
Garber, Megan (Jun 18 2014) Barbie Leans In. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/entrepreneur-barbie-is-ready-to-lean-in/373004/
Greier, Kathleen et al. (June 11, 2014) Does Feminism have a Class Problem? The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/blog/180031/does-feminism-have-class-problem
Hill, Logan (Jan 03 2013) Job Applicants’ Cultural Fit Can Trump Qualifications. Bloomberg Business Week. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-03/job-applicants-cultural-fit-can-trump-qualifications
Losse, Kate. (March 26, 2013) Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who wins from Leaning in? Dissent. Retrieved from http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/feminisms-tipping-point-who-wins-from-leaning-in
Miller, Claire. (June 8 2014) An Elusive Jackpot. The New York Times.
Modi, Kenal . (July 12, 2012) Man Up on Family and Workplace Issues: A Response to Anne-Marie Slaughter. The Huffington Post . Retreived from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kunal-modi/man-up-on-family-and-work_b_1667878.html?utm_hp_ref=media
Morgenson, Gretchen. (June 1, 2014) Choosing Not to Walk the Walk. The New York Times.
Sandberg, Sheryl. (2013) Lean In . New York: Knopf.
The Council of Economic Advisers (June 2014) Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/nine_facts_about_family_and_work_real_final.pdf