The Skinny on Leaning In

Leaning in at home

Leaning in at home

This spring, when I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s best selling “Lean In,” I knew I had to read it.   As an educated woman who left her career to help her high-earning, long-hours-working husband do even less housework,  I was part of the target audience.  As someone who can feel superior while relishing a deep inferiority complex, I really had no choice.

I was prepared to hate this book, figuring it would be pompous, lacking insight, and just as stupid as the “biz speak” title suggests it will be.   “Lean in?” (I quote my mother) “lean into what?” Exactly.  That stupid jargon-y title that, nevertheless, had me thinking about all the ways I should have “leaned” and where I should be “leaning” had me expecting the worst.

That is not what I found.  The book was well written and sucked me in immediately.   The psychological/sociological research she cites is compelling (assuming that the studies are sound and actually stand for the propositions they claim to stand for…tbd…) As I was reading it I was thinking, “Man, she wrote this?  She is a much better writer that I would have thought for an HBS person.”  Her message was not new, I guess, “Women need to try more.”  But the way she described how they stop trying was compelling as were her proffered theories (supported by the psych studies) as to why women are motivated to “lean back.”  The book was interesting, and spoke to me.

Except for this part where she said she “felt like a fraud.”  That I did not identify with at all.  Maybe I was never successful enough to feel like I ever got somewhere where I did not deserve to be.  My “success” always seemed appropriate.  To be sure, I have had my lucky moments (like the time I won the free game of mini-golf at Putt-Putt Glenwood Springs by dropping a pencil into a tube, and the time my dad happened to notice I had cancer as an infant because I was crawling through a patch of sunlight in a certain way as he happened to look down at me).  Furthermore, I have a strong sense that whether things work out (or not) is largely out of our control.  But I have never felt like a fraud.

Even at Harvard Law School, when I felt like I did not belong there, and jokingly (but seriously) lamented that I would not be able to prevail in an action against the admissions department for intentional infliction of emotional distress, I did not feel like a fraud.  I just did my time.  Tried to do well.  Figured out how to get around the legal writing requirement by writing a fictionalized account of a criminal trial and graduated.

But I have heard about this fraud feeling a lot.

Supposedly, according to the book, Tina Fey has claimed that she feels like a fraud.  I don’t believe this.  Maybe she said it. But there is no way she can feel like a fraud in the same way Sheryl Sandberg does.

When I read the chapter about feeling like a fraud, I just moved through it, took Sandberg at her word and continued to feel like a failure because I was unable to compel my spouse to do more around the house.  That Sandberg and her husband have a 50/50 division of labor is what impresses me most, as this goal to me seems much more difficult to accomplish than landing a top management position at Google or Facebook.

Some of her message seemed a bit unfair.  She stops short of mocking young women who, having heard Sandberg’s own exhortations to young professionals regarding the importance of mentorship, have approached Sandberg and asked, “could you mentor me?”  But she makes it clear that the mythical, wonderful mentorship relationship is not something you can seek out, it is bequeathed on the worthy.  This sort of undermines her claim that all women should be leaning in.  Really it is just the good, special ones.  Who feel like frauds.

I got close to the end of the book when I decided to read the acknowledgements section.

There, I learned for the first time, that Sandberg had a writing “partner,” Nell Scovell, who, among other things, wrote for the Letterman show and has an extremely successful writing/producing career from which she “took a break” for 18 months so that Sandberg (who continued working full time) could “write” Lean In.  Sandberg goes on to name a head researcher (who presumably tracked down and distilled the psychological studies whose findings had so impressed me) and dozens of others whose contributions were “indispensable.”

It isn’t “wrong” that Lean In was inspired by the career of Sheryl Sandberg and written by a team of people.  But it is strange that Nell Scovell (who, let’s be honest, must be responsible for the high quality of the writing) did not get an author’s credit.  In the back of the book we got a blurb “About the Author” (Sheryl Sandberg) and “About the Typeface” but Nell just gets an effusive shout out from Sandberg in the acknowledgements as a writing “partner.”  The copyright is owned by the “Lean In” organization, to which, supposedly all profits from the book will be donated.  But I wonder, how did the team of people get paid?  Did this whole group of people donate their time, take a break from their careers, to support Sheryl Sandberg?  Surely, not.  That’s what a wife would do!  They must have gotten paid.

Taking credit for what is a community effort is part of being a great “Leader.”  But maybe this is why Sandberg feels like a fraud.  Somewhere deep down she knows she is getting too much for her efforts.

I was disappointed to see how this book was presented as the work of one person, when so clearly it was not.  And even in the generous acknowledgements section, she forgot to thank the person who scrubbed her toilet and maintained her household.

Obviously, Sheryl Sandberg is an impressive person.  Intelligent, organized, ambitious and probably someone who would I would appreciate as a friend (and not just because she could buy me fancy birthday presents.).  It seems though, that the main reason the public is so interested in Sandberg and so convinced of her specialness, is not because of her intelligence, ambition, or her ability to be a good friend but because of her ability to make a lot of money, for herself.   A conversation about Sheryl Sandberg begins and ends with, she’s worth a billion dollars!

Let’s not forget, Sandberg is not Mark Zuckerberg.  (and she definitely is not Tina Fey!) who are “creators” of something.  Sandberg is an organizer. An impressive, compelling organizer.  But she is not creating anything but a brand.

My real problem with “Lean In” is not so much its message, but that we live in a world that values the work of Sheryl Sandberg, so disproportionately above of others.  Why was she able to make all that money?  She “leaned in” to be sure.  More importantly, she took advantage of a system that values her particular skills above those of philosophers, neurosurgeons, artists, teachers, and police officers.

Furthermore, as the book itself demonstrates (if not directly but by a real analysis of who actually created it), leaders and figure heads like Sandberg, only exist when they have a team of people helping them, adoring them, and following them, all while agreeing to take a lesser share of the spoils.  We all can’t be Sheryl Sandberg.

What’s more, we all shouldn’t be like her.  There is a value to leaning back.  It isn’t measured in money, and one certainly pays a “price” for it.  (I was at a networking function with my employed husband last week and most people were much more interested in staring at the air behind my shoulder than they were in talking to little old stay-at-home me.)

I am grateful for having had the chance to stop being paid to work.It gives me time to appreciate the billions of people who aren’t the COO of a social networking site–teachers, architects, orthopedic surgeons–who have the same level of intelligence as Sandberg but who chose careers that aren’t compensated at the same level.  And I am grateful for all of the “unskilled” workers who make my life possible and pleasant because they are willing to do jobs that I don’t have the patience or the “skills” to do.

Here is where I feel a little like a fraud.  I am busy doing all this “appreciating” at little or no cost to me.  I am not leading a the rally to implement a fair minimum wage.  I am not figuring out how to reduce economic inequality, or taking in foster children who deserve a better life that I could provide.  But I do take my “leaning back” seriously.  I do pick up my neighbor’s kids when the mom is stuck at work and can’t get official childcare.  I do receive packages (not containing contraband of course) for my sister who lives in NYC and can’t be home to receive them herself.  A few weeks ago I made an emergency tampon run to Duane Reade for a friend who was stuck in her apartment with a sick baby and a two-year-old who needed to be home for a speech therapy appointment.  Though I do not participate in the PTA to the extent that I should, I do try to be that extra person who fills in the gaps when siblings and grand parents aren’t available.  Finally, other than when I am on route 4, trying to parallel park, or begging my son to put on his socks, I am seldom “stressed out.”  And as a result, I can listen when other people need to talk and I am almost always in a very good mood.

The world would not work if everyone tried to be like Sheryl Sandberg: exploiting their talents to the fullest extent in order to make the most money possible.  But if everyone were more like me?  Taking time to relax and enjoy life but still exerting a lot of energy everyday to run my own (and at times other people’s) household for free?  Well that wouldn’t work either I guess.

How would there ever be enough coffee to go around?

About MotherJam

Trying to be insightful. But mostly just avoiding housework and ignoring my children.
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11 Responses to The Skinny on Leaning In

  1. hps says:

    You are a fantastic person, and I am having such fun reading your posts. As someone who leaned back and both regrets it and is quite pleased about it (simultaneously) I appreciate your view. I haven’t read Lean In because I thought it would be too demoralizing to someone who has chosen the life I have, but I should probably give it a chance and just accept things as they are, like you have done here.

    • pearl stolle says:

      Thanks, I appreciate the support. Don’t get me wrong, I was a little embarrassed for myself at that networking function when I realized, “duh! these free hors d’oeuvres aren’t meant for me.” But hey, I still enjoyed myself. And I bumped into (tall)
      Jonas from law school. Who was quite friendly, and even as tall as he was, spent very little time looking over my shoulder for someone else to talk to.

  2. Excellent post! With what you say, Sandberg is a little like a movie star who gets much of the credit, despite the hundreds of makeup/lighting/accounting/etc people whose role also mattered.

    Mini-editorial (delete if too preachy) : I feel OK thinking about a world with the goal of maximizing benefit. I’m happy that some folks, like Sandberg can maximize financial and associated benefit, but I also think there has to be room for other less easily quantified benefit to be maximized, like your coffee.

  3. Marielle says:

    The best part about you is that you didn’t even have to ask which brand of tampons (or size) I needed – you instinctively knew!!

  4. Mark says:

    So, you envisioned Pearl Stolle at a cocktail party. I would rather run into her than Sandberg. I wonder what she would have thought of the hors d’oeuvres.

    • Mark says:

      Let’s consider an excerpt of Maureen Corrigan’s review of “Lean In” on NPR:
      “…Given all those heavy-hitters pitching in and considering the pre-publication feminist firestorm, you would think Sandberg’s book would be a riveting read, but lean in and I’ll tell you something: I dozed off twice while reading it. Most of the book is kind of blah, composed of platitudinous-corporate-speak-intermixed-with-pallid-anecdotes. Sandberg bolsters her argument about the need for women to “lean in,” or assert themselves at work and at home, with truisms such as: “equality between partners leads to happier relationships.” Even though, Oprah-esque, Sandberg resolves to speak her “truth,” mostly mild confessions follow. We hear about how Sandberg vomited her way through her two pregnancies at work; not something juicier like, say, that she drunkenly vomited all over Mark Zuckerberg at the last Facebook holiday party. Sandberg wrote Lean In with the help of a professional co-writer, Nell Scovell, and the book has that ironed-out quality of a collaborative project. If Mary Wollstonecraft had written this tepidly, the first women’s movement might have wilted before it ever took root…”

      Do you really think that Nell Scovell is clamoring to take credit for this kind of writing? Probably not. She is, I think, content simply to get paid. That’s what professional writers are for. If she really wanted to get her name out there as an author, she might have tried to publish on her own. Without Sandberg’s name, my guess is that nobody would be talking about this book or its message.

      Both Sandberg and Scovell deserve credit for getting this message out there. But make no mistake, this book is all about Sandberg. The idea that there was a professional co-writer should come as a shock to nobody. That just the way it works. Nell Scovell knows it, and she knew it when she agreed to write it. I suspect that she has been mildly surprised to find that her compilation of “platitudinous-corporate-speak-intermixed-with-pallid-anecdotes” has gone on to be such a sensation.

      • Mark says:

        It occurs to me that Scovell did not, in fact, get paid for her participation with this project. I was just thinking about how most writers (like my wife) get paid to do a job. It is possible and most laudable that Scovell’s contributions were freely offered to help get the message across and to benefit the LEAN IN foundation. This, combined with her relative anonymity makes her efforts worth double praise.

  5. You skipped the title page as you read the book. Nell Scovell’s name is right there with Sheryl’s.

    I am not sure why this point is missed from the book, but the advice is not meant to be for *all* women. I am not really sure what advice could be good for all women, or all people. Advice is autobiographical and depends on the situation. Ot it is so general as to be useless. The issue Sandberg identified is real: 13% of top positions being held by women is too few. And she doesn’t mention that fewer than 13% of homes are run by men, but that is part of the problem too. (I always point out that Jack Welch did not get to where he was doing 50% of the domestic chores, so if you want a woman to achieve the same level of success you can’t just say she needs to find a partner willing to pick up 50%, it needs to be more like 95%.)

    So Sheryl is talking to the missing 37%. That doesn’t mean she thinks staying at home with your kids is a bad thing. That’s fine. That’s a choice. But there IS 37% of our population that could be in top positions which is dropping out instead and she’s saying it would be better for our society as a whole if they did not. All of those studies back up her points. It would be better. People like Warren Buffett have come out and said, “Of course it would be better and we are fools to waste half our available resources.” I paraphrased him a little. And Hilary Clinton said we can’t solve the world’s problems until we get the entire population working on them instead of just half. And so on.

    And, the truth is, their spots are probably held by less ambitious men who should be staying at home with the kids instead. I know, I’m one of them. (I’m also in the acknowledgements.)

    Your view that there are more important things than a billion dollars (depending on share value, obviously) is a view that more leaders should have. But they won’t if smart, articulate people like you are content to let the men have 85% of the top spots. It will remain exactly as it is.

  6. MotherJam says:

    I take your point. I still think that Nell Scovell’s role was not properly credited. I am sure she does not give a hoot about this (and you, I understand, are in a much better position to know her feelings on the matter).

  7. Laura says:

    I liked Lean In. I was eager to read it for 2 reasons: (1) it seemed like it was generating a fair amount of controversy among the academic feminists of my past professional life (she’s not solving problems of all women; she’s elitist, blah, blah); (2) she’s writing from her experience working in high tech (my current professional world). As somebody who’s lived in both worlds, I wanted to form my own opinion.

    I wasn’t really bothered by the fact that she doesn’t attempt to solve or address issues for all women. That’s clearly out of scope. Her audience is college-educated women in specific types of career tracks. She definitely does a good job of describing how women routinely “lean out” in the high tech industry.She doesn’t address a lot of the reasons for women not leaning in that are specific to high tech (which start with too few women in C.S./engineering programs, and the general culture of the industry), but that’s probably because she wants it to be a general book. I witness this stuff on a daily basis — perhaps no where more frequently than on the “anonymous moms” discussion list, where women go to ask questions like “Can I quit and ever plan to come back”, or “Is it easier to be a vendor than an FTE” etc., etc.

    I agree that having a partner on board for support on the home front is essential to leaning in, but I ultimately thought she shortchanged the day-to-day realities of most of the women (and men) in her target audience who aren’t internet millionaires 2x over face. This is the beef I have with many of the executives of my own beloved corporate overlord, many of whom were catapulted to obscene wealth during the early days of the company. They have the money to enjoy flexibility and choices that most middle-class and even upper middle-class working parents don’t have or cannot afford. Their perspective on employee policies is perhaps influenced by this.

    I’m guessing that Sandberg is of the nanny-employing demographic (no insult intended to any of my many friends who actually have nannies….I just mean she enjoys the flexibility you have when you can start directly employing people to work for you). She isn’t worrying about getting charged by the minute (!) if she is late to a daycare pick-up because a meeting runs late and she gets stuck on a bridge in epic traffic. She probably employs both house cleaners and landscapers….maybe even a private chef or meal service…if only for some meals. If she entertains, she probably hires a caterer. I have no doubt that it’s easier to lean in, or to commit to a career path that’s going to require 60+ hours a week if you’re confident in your ability to outsource (or offload to partner) the majority of the work required to keep a household running.

    But when reading her book, I had the sense that the 50/50 split that she and her husband enjoy might not be the same 50/50 that people without the means to outsource the grunt work have to tackle. In other words, are she and her husband doing a 50/50 split of what would essentially be 20% of what most middle class dual-career couples have as their “2nd shift work”?

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