Leaning in or leaning out


By Anna Koelsch, Write(H)ers participant


Does Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg have the answer for how women can finally break the glass ceiling? Probably not. 

Sandberg has attracted a lot of attention in the past few years. She’s delivered TED Talks and a Barnard College commencement speech, and those speeches brim with facts describing the dire situation of female leadership. As she said at Barnard, “Of 190 heads of 2 state, nine are women.  Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years.  Nine years.  Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.”

We all recognize that this is not ideal (I hope), but what to do about it? Sandberg’s answers to this question have been the impetus for her most recent wave of media attention. The crux of her upcoming book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” is that women need to work and try harder, and ‘lean in’ to their careers to achieve their full potential. Sandberg wants to begin a network of ‘Lean In Circles,’ where women meet monthly to discuss ways to combat inequality in the workplace.

Many have found this prescription easy to criticize, as Sandberg may have encountered fewer obstacles ascending her career ladder with two Harvard degrees and Larry Summers, Harvard’s former president and the former Secretary of the Treasury, as her academic and professional mentor. 

Another criticism of the “Lean In” model is that Sandberg focuses on helping the already-elite rise to super-elite status (for example, the Lean In Circles she suggests are “Booz Allen Hamilton Lean In Circles and Stanford University Lean In Circles”). What should be done, many argue, is focusing on how we can deconstruct already-existing power structures and empower more women to ascend professionally. 

I have to admit that I’ve been a starry-eyed Sandberg disciple ever since I watched that Barnard commencement speech, and felt like I had finally found my professional role model. I pre-ordered the Kindle version of “Lean In” months ago, and will probably try to join a Lean In Circle. I’ve spent the majority of this past weekend reading columns and blog posts criticizing Sandberg’s ideas, and then juxtaposing critical articles with re-watching the Barnard commencement speech and Makers.com’s Sandberg video-profile.

Maureen Dowd wrote a pretty scathing column about Leaning In that really had me think twice about my Sandberg veneration. Upon Dowd’s finding that Lean In Circles are supposed to include women telling professional stories with only positive endings, and that there is a specific instruction for circle-leaders to not invite flakes, Dowd responds with, “That leaves me leaning out.” She concludes by suggesting that Sandberg has created the whole Lean In movement to market herself.

I’m still going to read Sandberg’s book, and I’m still probably going to join a Lean In Circle. I do feel that it is important to question Sandberg and criticize her project. What are her motivations? Does she really blame women for not working hard enough? Does her advice about professional advancement apply as much to a community college student as it does to a Harvard student? I’m working on answering those questions for myself.

Ultimately, I think a project that directs attention toward closing the gender gap is probably net-positive, even if there are some questionable aspects to it.