Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Men Must Lean In Too

Breaking the Glass Ceiling is as easy as 1. (Smile), 2. (Negotiate) 3. (Be Polite)…

For women, getting ahead in their career is not just a matter of ambition and face-time. Finesse is key; basically, act like a woman, and FYI, don’t count on men at all. According to Sheryl Sandberg, and incidentally Dan Zevin, you need to “lean in” because they’re going to “lean back.”

In a biting parody of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s upcoming book “Lean In,” writer Dan Zevin wrote this article — essentially a mock book proposal — in which the “author: Guy Maxx” urges men to “lean back (and relax!)” and let the women in their lives “finally do more of the work.” The fictitious Maxx goes on to laud his perfectly proportioned home-maker-turned-breadwinner wife who not only maintains her manicured figure, but also “effortlessly balances vacuuming, dish washing, cooking, trips to Target, coaching our son’s football team…” and her “9 a.m. to 5 (a.m.) job.”

What Zevin points out so articulately in his piece is that women have been, for a long time, doing much of the work. The problem has never been lack of work — or lack of “leaning-in”; instead, it is the devalued nature of “women’s” work, and the male-dominated work culture that requires, in order for a family to function, someone to play the traditional “woman” — taking care of kids, cleaning, cooking.

Women’s incomes are making up an ever-increasing proportion of family incomes. The recession actually resulted in greater job losses for men, meaning that in a larger number of families, the wife was supporting the family. In fact, as of 2010 in the bottom quintile of families, 69.7% contain wives earning as much or more than their male counterparts. The number drops to 45% in the middle quintile and then to 33.5% in the top quintile.

These numbers exist in stark contrast to how American families operated prior to the post-industrial economy. Alexis de Tocqueville was lauded for his prolific writing on the development of American society, noticing and identifying social trends far before they were fodder for study. In 1840, he marveled about the stark division between the two “spheres” one for men (public) and one for women (private) in America. If the gender roles we are familiar with today developed prior to the industrial revolution in America, they were carved in stone as a result of it; industry quite literally split the spheres of home and work. If this change seems simple or small, it was not; dividing the economy into two spatially separate spheres further divided men and women as well. Hence, our gendered social institutions: women belonged in the home, and were “not suited” to the spheres of business or politics, certainly not in positions of leadership. Indeed, at the time of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1910s and 20s, the arguments — made by men and women alike — against giving women the vote were that the women’s sphere included: “childcare, education, [and] housing…” The "men’s sphere" of international politics was “outside the legitimate sphere of a women’s influence” because issues of war, peace, and the use of force were addressed.

The point of this historical (and rather egregious) digression is to point out that this division between “work” and “home” also became a division between paid and unpaid, and thus a division between valued and not. Given that industrial society has been built on this separation, it took decades for women to claw their way into the valued-work sphere of men. This brings us to the last three decades wherein since the women’s lib movement of the 1970s, not much has changed. Women now must not only cover home plate but they also must play shortstop, third base and outfield. Hence, the birth of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s “Second Shift.” It is taken for granted by most women now that should they decide to have a family, they will either a) compromise the pace of their career or b) be miserable trying to maintain their current work schedule.

The bottom line is, we already "do it all" (ie. “have it all”). Unfortunately, "having it all" means competing against men who either a) don’t have a family or b) already get to “lean back (and relax!)” with the Good Old Boys and a scotch on the rocks, because they probably have a Mrs. Guy Maxx who is both taking care of the kids and bringing in a second income. Though chances are she’s getting paid at $0.75 on the dollar as compared to her male coworkers.

This brings us to Lean In, wherein Sandberg advises women to be more confident, and more vociferous in demanding that raise or that promotion, albeit in a “womanly” (read: smilingly polite) manner. In an interview with the Washington Post, Sandburg admitted that she’s asking more work of women, yet again;

“…she encourages women to tackle an unfair situation — women hold 14 percent of executive positions in the United States — by playing an unlikable game: Ask for respect, but in a womanly manner. Be eternally pleasant. Suggest that you’re requesting a raise because a superior advised it…”

Sandberg admits women are socialized to be conciliatory and collaborative, and so we worry about how we come off. She says that we should continue to push through this, but “with smiles.” This writer (along with her interviewer at the Washington Post, Monica Hesse, and several other women) find this paradoxical, and frankly a source of self-doubt; "what if, with a little more effort, persistence, cajoling, I could’ve scored that position/raise/interview," etc. Sandberg puts it on women to do the legwork of change-making. So, at the risk of sounding supremely lazy, my question is, after “leaning in” all the way for the last century or so, when should we expect our male counterparts, and bosses to lean in and meet us halfway? And if we are obsessed with using gender-based expectations of our behavior to gain entry into a realm we are largely denied, then does that not set us back in the process? Or is this just the game we must play, a sacrifice made for the future?

Ultimately, the American economy and family structure is rapidly changing, necessitating that those in seats of corporate power become flexible and open to discussion of “soft” issues like work-life balance. When you reach a point at which the majority of families cannot squeeze their lives into the corporate mold, something has to give. Women will have to “lean in,” but men should definitely not be “leaning back.”