As I read Sheryl Sandberg’s superbly researched book Lean In, I winced in remembered pain.
In early 1990, six months after my husband and I arrived in New York, I was waiting for the 1-9 train at Lincoln Center with several acquaintances. No longer the frightened young woman who wouldn’t go anywhere without her husband, I was enthusiastically describing a foreign film I’d recently seen (possibly Cinema Paradiso), just one of the many wonders of New York I was discovering. Clearly fed up by my gushing, one of the women who was a few years younger than me and had also majored in music at university but who was now rearing two young children as her husband attended law school, declared imperiously, “Whitney, you really do need to start having children.”
I was hurt, then angry. No doubt I went home to my husband and criticized her for having children when she seemingly didn’t want them. The incident also made me question the decision I had made to pursue a career prior to having children.
However hurtful the mommy wars being waged on the homefront (and inside me) were, they were nothing compared to how embattled I have often felt as a woman working on male-dominated Wall Street. This experience of being picked on, overlooked, or otherwise put down started young. In third grade, to be precise, when during a grammar lesson my teacher wrote they’er on the chalkboard. Eagerly, I raised my hand to correct her. “Ms. S,” I declared proudly, “You made a mistake. It’s supposed to be t-h-e-y-’-r-e.” Instead of congratulating me on my keen observation and excellent spelling, I was reprimanded for being a smart mouth.
As I moved from schoolwork to Wall Street work, there was the boss who wouldn’t remunerate me for superior client service because “girls like to do that sort of thing.” And the occasions, not a few, when I have watched senior men throw open the door of opportunity for young men—doors that I had hoped (and asked) to be opened for me—and was then expected to wave my pom-poms as the young Turks paraded by.
It is no surprise then, that while reading Sandberg’s book was just a little painful, I felt validated. It wasn’t just my teachers, colleagues, and bosses dismissing me. Other women, many, many other women, have been systematically overlooked and undervalued, and Sandberg draws on a wealth of research to show us that we’re not alone. She cites studies indicating that men are compensated for helping co-workers because it’s considered an imposition, while women are not because of our presumed desire to be communal. Research demonstrating that boys can call out answers voluntarily in school and teachers listen, while girls are scolded when we don’t raise our hand; data showing that men are significantly more likely to be sponsored than women.
As for her rallying cry that we “lean in” to our career and pursue our ambitions, I couldn’t agree more, though let’s first be clear about what I am agreeing to. I read Ms. Sandberg’s book through the lens of Jungian psychology, which asserts that every woman and every man comes equipped with a psychological structure that includes qualities characterized as both “feminine” and “masculine.” Our capacity for relatedness and love is feminine, while our ability to wield power and control situations is masculine. In order to become a complete person, we need to develop both. But leaning in—whether toward our masculine or feminine side—can be a double bind. Even as society shames us for wanting to navigate uncharted waters, it criticizes our dream of nurturing, of being a safe harbor. Meanwhile, because many women feel the tug of our ship full of dreams while (surreptitiously) trying to keep one foot grounded on the dock of family life, our choices often feel Solomonic.
Which brings me to the chatter that Sandberg places too much responsibility on women to be accountable for their own success (in spite of scores of footnotes and citations that acknowledge the systemic bias). And yet if we walk away from the notion of leaning in—believing that our success hinges less on our personal actions than on the removal of institutional barriers, then we undermine the entire premise of feminism. (A term which, make note, I am using for the first time in print because of Sandberg’s commentary.) Feminism isn’t about “the man” finally capitulating to our demands, or even about our very own corporate version of Cinderella. It is about believing that each of us must lean in to becoming a complete woman, learning to love and wield power, to be a harbor and a ship—and respecting other women as they do the same.
I was intrigued that Sandberg included the statement “all advice is autobiographical.” As she penned this book, a book which she described as “what would I write if I weren’t scared,” what advice was she giving herself? In my piece, “Why I’m Glad Sheryl Sandberg Isn’t on Facebook’s Board (Yet),” I wondered, and still do, if Sandberg would have delivered her watershed TED talk, the precursor to this book, if she had not been long-denied a board seat at Facebook, something she clearly deserved. Was she giving herself advice then? Is she now? Passion is often born of pain, of the desire to make meaning of our lives.
“Boo hoo!” some may utter. It’s easy to step up with a silver spoon. But if we are really honest, we all know that pain and deprivation is relative. We feel it where we are, within our own sphere. And no matter how much we may elevate and admire her—and I very much do—Sheryl Sandberg is not a demigod, free from constraint, impervious to pain. She does wield tremendous power relative to most of women. But extrapolating from my own work experience, and reading between the lines, she is still very much beholden to Mark Zuckerberg. From where we sit, it may look like Sandberg’s call for us to lean in comes from a cushy chaise lounge. But I suspect that, most days, her seat of power feels anything but.