I’m hitting “like” on Leaning In
The spotlight is on Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her mission to change the balance of power in the United States. Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” hit the proverbial shelves this week and the media is buzzing. Is Sandberg the new Gloria Steinem? Will her message on women and leadership motivate real change?
Criticism of the book is plenty. Some point out the contradictions in Sheryl’s story and assert that the inconsistencies make her advice too confusing to be meaningful. An article on Vogue.com, for example, points out that while Sandberg encourages women to take a seat at the table, raise their hands, and speak up, she later mentions that she enlisted a career coach to train her to speak less.
Really? First, when she mentioned the career coach, she was making a very different, and very individual point. And, so what? All a few contradictions in someone's personal story reveal to me is that he or she is a human being. Do any of us live a life without contradictions? If only it were that simple.
There are also critics who ask how someone like Sandberg – with her privileged socio-economic background, elite Harvard education, and successful, supportive husband – can speak to all womenkind? Regarding this point I wonder whether that’s what she is really trying to do. Author and historian Stephanie Coontz compares Sandberg’s message to that of Betty Friedan 50 years ago; “She’s talking to a particular audience, but they really need this message.” This white, middle class, educated, heterosexual, married woman agrees.
Sheryl Sandberg, I like you. I like you and I like your book. “Lean In” moved and motivated me, and oy, did chapter 7, “Don’t Leave Before You Leave,” make me think. And I really like to do that too.
After graduating from a top law school in 1997, I landed a coveted position at a Park Avenue law firm and moved to New York City. I hated my job. That’s an understatement. I cried daily. My face broke out in giant red cysts. I read career self-help books until my head exploded from the multitude of colors I saw in my parachute.
Just two years into the practice of law, I completely abandoned ship. In the name of “this is not why I went to law school” and “I want to make a difference,” I took a sixty thousand dollar pay cut, moved out of my apartment and accepted an entry-level position in PR so I could work for an organization whose cause I believed in. Bad choice? I don’t believe in them. And my story ends just fine. But I share it here because I must admit to this – a big part of what allowed me to take such a leap was that I knew I never wanted to make it to partner. In fact, I “knew” that within ten years I would want to leave whatever job I was doing to stay home with my children. And in that case why bother working my way up any lawyerly kind of ladder?
Was I married at the time? Did I have children? Was I spending any time interacting with any children? No. No. And no. My lifestyle was as child-free as they come. But after working really hard in law school for three years and engaging in the grueling process of studying for and being admitted to the bar, I made a decision six years before my son was even born with him closely in mind.
I am not saying I should have stayed at the law firm; that was clearly not a healthy choice. I ended up liking PR and being good at it. I also loved and deeply appreciated the seven years I spent staying home full-time with my kids and I continue to enjoy and be thankful for the flexibility that being a consultant allows in my days. But Sheryl’s point about leaving before we leave really hit home. No pun intended. So I’m also thankful for another key point in her book - that today’s career climb takes place on a jungle gym, not a ladder. Perhaps, after-all, I haven’t yet reached my top.
Look, like other thought leaders and writers on the subject, Sandberg blames the exodus of highly educated women from the workforce for today’s leadership gap in America. She blames me. I’ve read this before, I feel guilty, and I don’t appreciate it. But when Sandberg proceeds to compare a career to a marathon, I hear her, I get it, and along with my satisfaction with where I am today, I also feel grateful that there are still many years ahead of me to work.
“Imagine that a career is like a marathon – a long, grueling, and ultimately rewarding endeavor. Now imagine a marathon where both men and women arrive at the starting line equally fit and trained. The gun goes off. The men and women run side by side. The male marathoners are routinely cheered on: “Lookin strong! On your way!” But the female runners hear a different message. “You know you don’t have to do this!” the crowd shouts. Or “Good start – but you probably won’t want to finish.” The farther the marathoners run, the louder the cries grow for the men: “Keep going! You’ve got this! But the women hear more and more doubts about their efforts. External voices, and often their own internal voice, repeatedly question their decision to keep running. The voices can even grow hostile. As the women struggle to endure the rigors of the race, spectators shout, “Why are you running when your children need you at home?”
I urge you to read Sandberg’s book. To sit down at the table. And to speak your truth. And please invite your friends to join you. You know which ones. You can also go online to share your story and learn from others at Leanin.org, or please, feel free to contact me to chat at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck. You can do it. I like you.