The Internet is abuzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s book and initiative Lean In. Critics are saying that her approach is unrealistic and supporters are saying that she’s right, women do need to step up more. I wonder if Sandberg has ever taken a Gender Studies class. If she has, then she would understand that all the leaning in in the world sometimes doesn’t get you to the top. And since when is the top the only goal. As someone in my last job once said, there aren’t enough of those spots to go around. If everyone in the organization wants to move up within the organization, then there’s going to be a lot of disappointment. That’s true more broadly. There’s a pyramid structure that exists in the work world. As far as I know, Sandberg hasn’t acknowledged that.
In the comments to a post by Penelope Trunk, someone called Sandberg’s book and books like it, career porn for women. I read The Feminist Mistake, and I’ll probably read this one just because I don’t like arguing against things I haven’t read. Many of the women I read on the Internet started out as career women. Some still are. Many, including myself, have shifted careers in order to balance their lives better. One thing I know in middle age that I didn’t know as a young woman is that neither the workplace nor the family structure have shifted enough to make an intense career plus family a real possibility for women. Nannies are often only possible after you’ve made it. Before that, you either take out a loan to pay for childcare or hope your partner can pick up the slack. If he’s in an intense career, that’s a nonstarter.
The workplace needs to shift before the family can. It needs to measure output not facetime, so that a parent can leave to manage a doctor’s appointment. It needs to allow that for men and women, so that women can ask their husbands to share the burden, knowing that it won’t harm his career (or hers, when it’s her turn). We need subsidized childcare so that women in their early careers, before the paycheck matches the hours worked, can put in the hours needed.
Alternatively, we need to place less value on work. I’m notorious for asking, “What do you do? ” to anyone I’ve just met. And despite having all kinds of anxiety of this question when I was in various states of transition over the years, I still ask it and still there’s at least some judgement. I’ll admit to being disappointed with friends who’ve stepped back from a career when I know we’ll that sometimes the sacrifices aren’t worth the paycheck. Part of me wants them to push for what they need to stay, but I know that often the organization will never give them anything because there’s someone without kids or with a stay at home parent standing behind them ready to take their job.
So maybe women need to work on some skills that will allow them to move up or take on more responsibilities (as if they don’t already have a lot) but we also need to examine our practices and prejudices to make things better for all of us in the workplace.