Leaning out

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.

5 Replies to “Leaning out”

  1. Sandberg is very careful not to denigrate choice feminism. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what her message is, particularly from folks who are writing articles about the book without reading either the book or the article she wrote earlier.

    Laura Vanderkam actually read the book this weekend, unlike most of the journalists who have written articles on it, and has her review up this morning: http://lauravanderkam.com/2013/03/leaning-in-2-cents-2-quibbles/ .

  2. Thanks for the link! I agree with what Laura mentioned in her post about dealing with the internal issues immediately. Even if those are internalized norms from social pressures, recognizing them and doing something about them is important. As an example in my own life, I refuse to be too worried about household upkeep. If someone wants to complain about the cleanliness of my house–and we’re talking cluttered not unsanitary–then they’re not going to get the time of day. I recognize that people judge based on what your house looks like and assume that it’s the woman’s fault if it’s not clean. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  3. Not a comment on Sandberg (whom I haven’t read, so I won’t comment, other than to say that, as a woman who didn’t in the end have children, but did think a lot about how child-rearing would/could fit into my professional life, that she has, from what I’ve read about her book, at least some good points), but I think the pyramid remark makes a lot of sense. I worry about one very-competitive nephew (and about the extreme emphasis on competitive sports as a valuable experience for children) precisely because of this: only one person (or one team) can be first/best/the winner, but a lot of people can do a good job, be contributing members of society/the firm/the family.

    I think this also points to yet another problem with the way wage structures have changed over the last few decades. The increasing disparity between CEO (and just below)-level wages and ordinary workers’ wages make even people who would ordinarily be quite happy somewhere in the middle or even toward the bottom of the pyramid more inclined to try to claw their way upward. Some disparity in wages may, indeed, be wise (a complete lack of reward for harder work, more experience, etc., can also be dispiriting), but what we’ve got now isn’t healthy for anyone (including women, and men, with young children).

  4. “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”

    I’m intrigued by how you would think about implementing this philosophy in your own workplace, since teaching is one of the professions where facetime is significant (children and teachers together) and where continuity of person can matter (children develop personal relationships with individual teachers, as they do with care givers) and where output is difficult to measure.

    How could K-12 teaching be made more amenable to family? In our school, there is a “floating substitute teacher” (who can teach at any grade level, and who works every day). She knows the kids, all of them, so she can sub in and manage the classroom for almost any teacher. She is not up on the lesson plans for the multiple classrooms, so substantive work is set back when she subs, but the classroom isn’t disrupted, and to the extent that kids can continue work they’ve started already, they’re OK. This allows teachers to be able to rely on subs more frequently than in some other schools, because they know their kids will be OK with the sub assigned to their class. On the other hand, when teachers have had to have a higher frequency of subs, in the younger grades, the kids have been visibly uncomfortable, sometimes voicing concerns (the most frequent one, as in divorce, that the teacher is not in the classroom because the kids have misbehaved in some way — that it is their fault). In the older grades, the schoolwork gets disrupted because although our sub is great, she does not have the teaching/content mastery to teach math, science, English, at the level that the regular classroom teachers do.

    Also, in a school with 50 teachers, or so, many of whom are in childbearing age, in order to offer maternity leave, the school needs to employ approximately 10-20% extra teachers in order to cover maternity leave. It affects this workplace more dramatically, because more teachers are likely to be mothers, in particular, than, say tech workers.

  5. I find my job as a teacher pretty family friendly. My official day ends at 3:30, which is when my kids are out of school. I have gaps in my day for appointments and no one is counting the number of hours I put it. I’m there for the school day and for a handful of after-hours activities, which I know about well in advance so that I can make arrangements. I have colleagues who are always willing to step in to sub.

    We get a handful of sick days and we have short and long term disability. Maternity leaves are covered by long term subs. I’ve had several colleagues who have had babies, been out for a couple of months and then returned. Some plan babies for the summer, for obvious reasons. We, too, have some regular subs, whom the kids know.

    The upper grades are honestly less of an issue as kids have multiple teachers. While there may be a sub for English, the entire department knows the curriculum and often helps support the sub. It’s not as disruptive.

    And I have to say, the breaks help. I can work frantically for weeks in a row, when I’m in heavy grading mode, for example, knowing that I have a week’s break coming. Most corporations don’t have that. If work is busy, and you’ve used up your vacation time, too bad. I would say, in general that teaching is cyclical. There are crazy busy times, and there are slower times. And summer helps a lot.

    Maybe not every school is like mine, but I definitely feel like I have the schedule and support I need to balance work and family.

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