More push back on Sheryl Sandberg

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In today’s New York Times we are treated to yet another installment of the cultural push back to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” in an article entitled “Coveting Not a Corner Office, but Time at Home.” The article is really gag-making and offers another example of distorting Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, to be saying something that it does not – that all women do or should aspire to leadership positions.

The premise of the Times article seems to be that many (half? most? all “normal”?) women want to lean back, not into work so that they can have more family time.  And Sandberg’s Lean In provides the strawman against which to contrast the stories of the women interviewed. But it turns out that they don’t so much offer a counterexample of Sandberg’s advice as an illustration of it in action.

Sara Uttech has not spent much of her career so far worrying about “leaning in.” Instead, she has mostly been hanging on, trying to find ways to get her career to accommodate her family life, rather than the other way around. Ms. Uttech, like … dozens of other middle-class working mothers interviewed about their work and family lives, [] finds climbing a career ladder less of a concern than finding a position that offers paid sick leave, flexible scheduling or even the opportunity to work fewer hours.

Uh… So far it just sounds like the reporter is making an observation that might apply to any number of people in this economy, not a unique problem for women. But wait. Here it comes….

“The ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother.”

Huh? But “not for Ms. Uttech”? So why is her story being offered up as a counter-example to the advice Sandberg gives in Lean In?

Ms. Uttech wants a rewarding career, but more than that she wants a flexible one. That ranking of priorities is not necessarily the one underlying best-selling books like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which advises women to seek out leadership positions, throw themselves at their careers, find a partner who helps with child care and supports their ambition, and negotiate for raises and promotions.

The red flag here might be in the “not necessarily” above. So is Sandberg’s advice different from or at odds with what Ms. Uttech wants? Let’s see. Ms. Uttech does want a “rewarding” career. She is not saying she doesn’t want to work. She is definitely not suggesting she wants to be a stay-at-home mom. (Presumably, although this is not discussed in the article, she  is also  not interested in being paid less for her work.)  Because she is interested in a “rewarding” career she has

done some of those things, [that Sandberg advises] and plans to do more as her children (two sons, ages 8 and 10, and a 15-year-old stepdaughter) grow older. Already she has been raising her hand to travel more for trade shows and conferences; last year she made four trips.

Oh, so some of this is contingent on the age of her children. Let’s keep going. What has she done that is “not necessarily” like what Ms. Sandberg would advise? Turns out it is this:

But probably the career move she is proudest of — and the one she advocates the most — is asking her boss to let her work from home on Fridays.

So this is what constitutes bucking the advice Sandberg gives?  Ms. Uttech raised her hand and spoke up, asking for what she thought she needed. Gee! That is way different from what those “elite” women like Sandberg advise.

Of course it is not. Rather than resisting Sandberg’s advice, it appears Ms. Uttech is following it. Taking the initiative to ask for what you need is precisely what Sandberg advises. Lean In opens with an anecdote about Sandberg asking for special, reserved parking spaces at Google for pregnant women when she herself was pregnant. She takes herself to task for not thinking of this need earlier and speculates that “other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, not wanting to ask for special treatment.” (Lean In, p. 4). The rest of the Times article does little to further this notion that those interviewed represent a trend or a feeling that is “not necessarily” what Sandberg would advise.

It turns out that both Ms. Uttech’s direct supervisor and the chief executive of the business she works for are women, the latter, Ms. Bergfeld, doesn’t  have children but  has responsibilities related to a side venture raising sheep and breeding “greater Swiss Mountain dogs” which she accommodates with flextime as well.

[T]he agricultural association’s chief executive, Ellen Bergfeld, had also set the tone that work-life balance was important. Ms. Bergfeld doesn’t have children, but she has demanding responsibilities outside the office raising sheep and breeding Greater Swiss Mountain dogs. Around the time Ms. Uttech first asked permission to work from home, in fact, Ms. Bergfeld boldly left in the middle of a board meeting in Washington because of a family emergency of sorts: her very first puppy litter was about to be born earlier than expected, and her “city boy” husband at home “couldn’t deal,” she said.

It is hard to know where to begin with this. Ms. Bergfeld qualifies as setting the tone for work-life balance because she breeds dogs and her “city boy” husband can’t “deal” with doggie birth?! This is a “family emergency”? Now before everyone gets up in arms, I want to say, I have a dog. Dogs are important. Indeed, our pets are often like family and maybe we would all be the better for more time with our animals.  But then we might be the better for more time spent with hobbies or cultivating interests other than work as well, not just family. One wonders whether this analogy would have worked if Ms. Bergfeld had been Mr. Bergfeld. And would the reporter have drawn the same analogies if Ms. Bergfeld was leaving in the middle of the meeting for a ballroom dancing class, to shear those sheep, or to take a Judo lesson?  All those things are activities that may enrich work-life balance, but the example looks suspiciously like one intended to draw parallels between dog breeding and birth generally in order to fit Ms. Bergfeld into the narrative of a working “mom” wanting “family time.” (I don’t even know what to do with the “city boy” reference except to say that it seems to reproduce the trope of supposed male incompetence to handle tasks coded “female” – as in, “my husband is hopeless at _______” fill in the blank, “fixing dinner,” “doing the laundry,” “cleaning,”” ironing,” etc.  See Sandberg’s discussion of this phenomenon in Chapter 8 of her book.)

Okay. So Ms. Uttech’s ability to get flexibility in her schedule seems to have perhaps been in part because women were in leadership positions at her job.  But that is totally different from what Sandberg is saying right?


To cap the pregnancy parking story Sandberg writes, “Having one pregnant woman at the top … made the difference. That is Sandberg’s point: Women will not achieve full equality until there are more women in positions of power. One element, just one, of getting more women into those positions, she argues, is for more women to see themselves in those positions and to own their own ambition, to take steps to claim a place at the table and she wants to raise women’s consciousness about the internal barriers to advancement of which they may be unaware, barriers she discovered in herself in the course of her career. She doesn’t assume that means all women should work in a job for pay or that all women should aim to be CEO or President of the United States, that legal reform has no role or that more assertiveness will solve all women’s problems. Not even close. It would be hard for her to be clearer about this, but one suspects that the usefulness of her book for the reactionary response is greater if you don’t actually read what she wrote but instead tell a story about what she supposedly said.

That is its function in the Times story. The lede about “not coveting the corner office” and the suggestion that this is a distinctively female issue is profoundly dishonest. Indeed, throughout the article the reporter is careful to note that work-life balance is actually not just a problem for women but that many men want flex-time as well and that an appropriate work-life balance may be a problem for most Americans, not just women. (Sandberg says this as well, but who cares? That doesn’t make as good a story.)

But those are just obligatory genuflections toward gender balance so the article does not to seem to be as reactionary and retrograde as it is. The subtext (and not very “sub”) of the article is the reassurance that most women aren’t ambitious and to reinforce the notion that most women —  “real” women, “good” women — are mothers or want to be mothers and value their family lives over their careers — just like they are supposed to.

Not everyone aspires to be an executive at Facebook, like Ms. Sandberg, or to set foreign policy, like Anne-Marie Slaughter (a former State Department official and another prominent commentator on what’s holding women back in the workplace), especially when the children are young. Unaccounted for in the latest books offering leadership strategies by and for elite women is the fact that only 37 percent of working women (and 44 percent of working men) say they actually want a job with more responsibilities, according to a survey from the Families and Work Institute. And among all mothers with children under 18, just a quarter say they would choose full-time work if money were no object and they were free to do whatever they wanted, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

There are so many problems with this. Note the word “elite.” Message: These women are not like “normal” or “ordinary” women. Never mind that Sandberg writes, “I am fully aware that most women are not focused on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day.” (Lean In at 169). And never mind that Sandberg and Slaughter actually have somewhat different “takes” on the situation for working women and what is possible. (Slaughter seems to have been rather more jolted by the demands of work outside academia into concluding that women cannot “have it all” – see her Atlantic piece here — while Sandberg, perhaps because she has always worked in the business world, appears more optimistic about having “it all,” although perhaps this is just a matter of defining what “all” constitutes.)

Second, in the survey quoted above the question is phrased as “wanting a job with more responsibilities” as opposed to, say, “more prestige” or “more money.”  It may be that more prestige and money necessarily entail more responsibilities, but  all too often women  have experienced the “more responsibilities” without any additional prestige or money – for example, when women faculty serve on more faculty committees or taking on some advising or administrative project with no additional pay. So the form of the question may have artificially depressed the number of women who would respond in favor of their careers. Moreover, some of the response seems a function of having young children at home, something which is not a permanent condition and should not necessarily be seen as an indication of a lack of ambition, as indeed Ms. Uttech herself is an example of.

Finally, the survey also revealed that almost half of the men surveyed would also refuse “more responsibilities.”  In other words, the truth is that the majority of men as well as women do not aspire to the corner office if it means a lower quality of family life (or indeed just less leisure time.) But that truth doesn’t fit the narrative thrust as well – that women aren’t (shouldn’t be?) as ambitious as these “elite” women would have them be.

The cultural resistance to ambitious women is something Sandberg hoped to address in Lean In.  She most assuredly does not suggest in the book that all women should aspire to “the corner office” or that her own path is one that everyone ought to pursue. Nor, and this is very important, does she in any way suggest that the “solution” to the inequality of representation of women in the workplace, especially in executive or other leadership positions, is simply a function of women “leaning in” more such that women have no one but themselves to blame for their lack of representation in the higher echelons of work, politics, and institutions.

At the beginning of the book Sandberg asserts that women definitely need legal and structural changes to help them achieve their goals. She writes, “We need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into those [leadership] roles in the first place.” All she wants to do in her book is to provide advice and counsel about overcoming the internal barriers “because they are under our control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start at this very moment.” (Lean In at 9).  Her relatively modest goal is to offer some advice about how not to get in your own way at work, whatever your ambitions may be, so that the only obstacles you have to deal with are the external ones. And she is very clear that those external obstacles are material, unmistakeable and serious.

“The blunt truth is that men still run the world.” (Lean In at 5).  “The promise of equality is not the same as true equality.” (Id. at 7).  Sandberg says she is not trying to “blame the victim” but rather trying to help women with the advice that would have been helpful to her younger self about that small and circumscribed area which over which women may have some control – their own internal obstacles. But she is not blind to the ways in which we (a) might not even recognize these obstacles at first for what they are because they are so much a part of the culture in which we have been steeped and (b) even if we do recognize them and try “leaning in,” that we might be punished for doing so. She writes, “How individuals view what they can and should accomplish is in large part formed by our societal expectations.” (Lean In at 19).

Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional – or worse, sometimes even a negative – for women. ‘She is very ambitious’ is not a compliment in our culture. Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful. But women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.

 (Lean In at 17). Indeed. You might say many who have written about Sandberg’s book, like the reporter in this Times story, seem determined to prove the truth of that observation. Beware! If you write a book encouraging women to own their ambition and to ask for what they want, to “lean in” and ask for a seat at the table, you should be prepared to be labeled “elitist” and to find your message distorted and dismissed. How dare she? Who does she think she is?

NOTE: This article is cross-posted on my blog Oversold. See

NOTE: This is an updated version to correct some typos and make some edits for clarity.

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