Don’t Lean In. Find Balance.

March 27, 2013


Lean InSheryl Sandberg’s new book (Lean In) is out or should I say “in.” Her message to women is to be more ambitious, grab a seat at the table, raise your hand, and take credit for the work you’ve done. She believes that women have a tendency to lean backward as they consider whether and when to start a family. By “leaning backward” she means that women don’t make decisions that would move their career forward. They make choices that will enable them to step away from work. She also believes that women ought to choose partners who are willing to share housework and childcare responsibilities more equally than heterosexual couples tend to do.

Sandberg cites a lot of studies and statistics to bolster her argument: how women do two times as much housework and three times as much childcare in dual-working couples; how just a small percentage of women lead companies and nonprofits; how the numbers of women at the upper levels of government and industry have not improved over the past 9 years. It’s hard to argue with these statistics or Sandberg’s credentials. She went to Harvard Business School, achieved a great deal of professional and financial success with Google, and has been the COO of Facebook since 2008. But Lean In. The message is simple–overly simple, I believe. As is the message about choosing a partner who’s willing to split childcare and housework evenly. As is the message about taking credit for career advancement instead of claiming it’s largely a product of luck.

I confess that I have not yet read the book, but I did watch the speech Sandberg gave to the graduating class of Barnard. She gave a similar talk at TED, too, which has over 2 million views. In these appearances, Sandberg encourages women to be more ambitious, to keep the pedal to the metal–the way men do. At the same time, however, she seems to advocate for finding a healthy work/life balance. Are both possible? Yes, women can probably stand to “lean in” a bit more, but I think the problem also lies with men who lead unbalanced lives.

Gender roles aren’t as rigidly defined as they were in previous generations, but messages are still drilled into us by our parents and marketers. While a perfect split of housework and childcare responsibilities is desirable and fair, it’s probably not realistic in the short term. Men still feel the pressure to be providers, and that pressure leads to imbalance and the need to appear confident/successful. It’s true that confidence and success tends to lead to more confidence and success, but I think that men and women would be better served by admitting to the role luck and connections play in their career advancement. Sandberg does so, and I applaud her for that. More men should do the same.

Sandberg notes that there is a positive correlation between likeability and success for men, and a negative correlation between likeability and success for women. She has suffered from the dislike, but has committed to succeeding–the way men do. Her message to women is to follow her path, even though they likely will be disliked for doing so.

I find people who have a good work/life balance to be the most likeable–men and women. Rather than lobby for women to act more like men, the way Sandberg does, I think men and women would be better served by improving balance and honesty, not leaning. How about you?

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