Leaning in: It began, perhaps, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s December 2010 TEDWomen talk on why there are so few women leaders (which has now garnered 2.1 million views on TED.com and YouTube). Her ideas were further refined in her May 2011 commencement speech at Barnard College, and have now been expanded and formalized into a new book, Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which is – in true social media fashion – feeding into the launch of a web-based community, leanin.org.
All of these missives revolve around Sandberg’s view that too many women shy away from stepping up to the plate at the workplace, muffling their own ambitions and thereby short-changing their careers. On the face of it, not too controversial, but my, oh my what a firestorm of responses her views have sparked! Womenable pointed to the juxtaposition of the TEDWomen talk and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s counterpoint piece in the July/August 2012 issue of the Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, as one of the top womenabling news and events of 2012.
The well-orchestrated March 11th publication of Sandberg’s book has been met with a firestorm of commentary, however, not all of it positive. Here’s just a selection of related op-eds and direct commentary and coverage:
- An op-ed in the New York Times by former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan entitled, “Is There Life After Work?,” on the perils of leaning in all the way;
- Selected reviews of the book, including: “Do As I Do, Not as I Say” in the Wall Street Journal, a cut-to-the-quick review in the UK’s The Guardian, and a review of the reviews on allvoices.com;
- “Waiting for Superwoman” in Bloomberg Businessweek (longer article in the print magazine);
- Commentary in the Wall Street Journal, “The Real Women’s Issue: Time,” subtitled “Never mind leaning in. To get more working women into senior roles, companies need to rethink the clock”
- A TIME cover story on Sandberg, “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful“;
- a counterpoint to the TIME cover story on ForbesWoman, “Tip to TIME: Women Don’t ‘Hate’ Sheryl Sandberg Because She’s Successful“; and
- Sandberg’s reaction to all of the controversy in an AP story, and an interview with her in Harvard Business Review.
What is our view on all of this? Well, we have a few thoughts and reactions to this recent firestorm:
- This is a very western, industrialized economy conversation. In nearly 3/4 of countries around the world (specifically 141 economies investigated by the World Bank in their Women, Business and the Law report), women are at a legal disadvantage compared to men in one or more areas – so no matter how hard they lean in, they may not achieve equality of opportunity;
- The “lean in” exhortation ignores the double standard to which many women in the workplace are held. Frequently, exhibiting ambition and leaning in are met with resistance, undercutting, and being labeled a “rhymes with witch;” and
- This discussion is very much taking place in a corporate environment. In particular, it ignores the fact that many women (perhaps after leaning in to no avail) are taking their futures in their own hands, and are starting their own businesses. (Of course, in our entrepreneurial world, there is a similar conversation about why more women business owners are not scaling the heights of entrepreneurial success.)
All that said, of course, what may be the most important point is that, by circling our feminist wagons and shooting down a message and point of view from an important and visible woman business leader, we may damage our collective cause. After all, as pointedly observed by former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
So here’s what we say: all views are welcome, and many strategies are needed. We not only need to lean in, we need to push back, raise voices, change laws and change minds to advance the cause of equality of opportunity for all.