Why NYC Moms Should Think More About Leaning In

About a third of the way into Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, I registered a sense of disappointment. Sandberg’s book is far less interesting than the larger debate surrounding the book’s ideas about women in the workforce. By stepping forward as the putative head of a new women’s movement, Sandberg has provoked spirited discussion about whether she’s the right person to do that, as well as what that movement should be and try to achieve. It seems as if everyone who has an interest in women’s careers (and who shouldn’t?) has had something to say about Sandberg over the past few weeks, as publications from Cosmopolitan to O have featured Sandberg and her book.

But the book simply is not as lively or thought-provoking or controversial as the debate itself. Neither a memoir nor a self-help book, Lean In is a thoroughly researched and documented analysis of gender issues in the workplace, with 34 pages of dense, single-spaced supporting footnotes at the very end. The book has an academic quality, one that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise from a self-described geek with two Harvard degrees (BA and MBA), and a career that started at McKinsey & Company and the Treasury Department leading to her current position as COO of Facebook.

Sprinkled throughout Sandberg’s meticulous examination of female leadership are some workplace principles that she recommends. She encourages women to take more career risks, stop trying to please others, and to view careers as a jungle gym, not a ladder, a construct that she feels lends itself to more creative exploration, These ideas in themselves are not that controversial, but Sandberg’s underlying premise – that women actually impede their own progress – is highly provocative.

To me, this is contentious ground for anyone to navigate, let alone a highly successful and very public businesswoman. To be fair, Sandberg acknowledges that women are not the sole cause of workplace inequality, and she cites some research that shows institutional and societal biases that have nothing to do with how women behave. In one poignant study, students at Harvard Business School were told about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. The case described her “outgoing personality…and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.” Half of the students in the class were told that the case study was about a woman, Heidi Roizen, while the other half were told that the entrepreneur was a man, Howard Roizen. In the end, the same information with a single variable – gender – led to very different impressions. While students equally respected both Heidi and Howard, Howard came across as the more appealing colleague, whereas Heidi was seen as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

Despite research showing deep-rooted distortions in how we view men and women differently, Sandberg believes that women would be more successful if they focus on their own behaviors:

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout or lives — the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet. Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions. This is not a list of things other women have done. I have made every mistake on this list. At times, I still do.

Like others who have commented on her book, I’m bothered by the many contradictions in Sandberg’s work. In too many instances, she encourages women to do one thing when she did another. I am also disappointed that she’s using her considerable clout to chide women when I’d rather she exert greater leverage on the business community. If Lean In were merely one woman’s book, the contradictions – and the book’s position that women impede their own progress – would be relatively inconsequential. However, Sandberg has a lot of influence in the business community and Lean In aspires to be not merely a book so much as a platform, the first step in a campaign to raise awareness for, and draw traffic to, leanin.org, an online “global community committed to offering women the encouragement and support to lean in to their ambitions.”

The site features three types of resources: Meet the Community, which consists of a blog and motivational stories by mostly high-achieving women and men; Learn From Experts, a library of videos by academics and other professionals on topics such as “negotiation” and “team dynamics;” and Connect With Peers, a primer, with supporting materials, for establishing Lean In Circles, “small groups that meet regularly to share and learn together – like a book club focused on helping members achieve their goals.” Judging from the Lean In Circle early adopters, these groups might be attractive to women in their 20s and 30s.

I’ve long been a proponent of group work. In my practice supporting women’s careers, I find that groups can be safe, supportive environments that help women meet their goals more successfully due to the mix of accountability, structure, and personal interaction.  And I’m extremely excited that leaders in education and business are making best practices available to working women (and men). Everyone could use coaching on how to conduct themselves more effectively in the workplace.

If the Lean In movement gains traction amongst working women, Sandberg’s reach could be extensive. What I can’t predict is whether and how leanin.org will influence businesses and their human resources practices. Sandberg is a highly influential thought leader, one with several Board memberships under her belt (Starbucks, Disney, and Brookings, among others), and a coveted spot on Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list. She has already established relationships with “Platform Partners,” companies and organizations listed on the website that are affiliated with Sandberg’s movement.

Cisco is one of those Platform Partners and after its CEO met with Sandberg he ordered all of his top managers to read the book and “determine 3-4 specific things you will do differently and detail those commitments in your development plan.” Time will tell the extent to which corporations such as Cisco will address core gender equality issues (promotions, salary, flexible hours) or whether they will tackle the softer issues that Sandberg raises in her book (whether women sit at the table, finding mentors and sponsors of women employees).

With the impact of the Lean In movement uncertain, I’m left disappointed with Lean In the book. In my view, Sandberg has missed an opportunity to exert her influence in a way that would have broad impact on other women’s careers. As a respected corporate leader, Sandberg could have outlined concrete steps for companies to level the playing field for male and female employees. She could have proposed a list of 10 or so policies for companies to implement and then established a Sandberg “seal of approval” for those that put the ideas into practice. She could have advocated for more comprehensive pregnancy laws instead of suggesting, as she does, that women approach their employers individually to make them more aware of their needs. Sandberg experienced a fairly charmed ascent through the corporate ranks; imagine if her view of the world was informed by situations more complex than her employer (Google) not having reserved parking spaces for pregnant women, an inconvenience that she remedied with a quick conversation with the company’s founder.

Sandberg’s decision to focus on the things women could be doing reminded me of a lesson I learned back in the ‘90s, when I was a corporate litigator and I saw that the few women who had made it to the ranks of partner had no interest in making the career path to the top any easier for other female employees. They had gone head-to-head with formidable male competitors and they were not about to suggest that accommodations be made for any women unwilling to do the same. I was struck by the irony that once these women became insiders, they were best suited to readjust the glass ceiling, and yet because they were insiders they were less likely to lend a hand to others on their way up.

I believe that any movement that wants to truly impact workplace issues for women must try to influence corporate practices at least as much as women’s behaviors. In the meantime, Lean In is bringing some important parenting issues to the fore, and has sparked an essential conversation in every woman’s life. I would love to hear your thoughts about these issues. Please email me at [email protected].

Barri Waltcher is a New York City-based career advisor who helps women navigate the transition from parenting back to a satisfying career. She is the co-founder of Mind Your Own Business Moms (MYOBmoms.com) and a frequent speaker on career topics.