Several months ago the U.S. government passed a law requiring that all working women read and form an opinion on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. A rider on the law stipulates that every woman who has a blog (which is an absurdly large number) must write about her opinion about the book. Being the underachiever that I am, I’m just now getting around to fulfilling my legal requirements.
I liked the book a lot more than I expected to. I liked Sheryl Sandberg, a fact that will probably surprise her since she mentions several times that people do not like powerful women. I think she makes some great points, especially about the importance of making sure your partner “leans in” to family life. Unlike a lot of critics, I think she actually does a decent job of recognizing and acknowledging her position of privilege and how that privilege does not extend to most other working women (or humans living on this planet).
But, what I think she fails to acknowledge is that for most Americans, men and women alike, leaning in to working life makes very little sense, because for most Americans, working life sucks. I say this as someone who loves her job, as someone who has almost always been fortunate enough to love her job. I’ve only had three jobs in my life that I really didn’t like, and the longest I had to stay in a job I hated was a year.
But, working life isn’t what it used to be. My parents each had one job their entire professional lives. My parents finished their PhDs shortly before I was born, at which point they moved to Louisville, KY and joined the universities from which they retired 40 years later. My mother leaned in slightly before her time, but it made sense. She rose from assistant professor to full professor and eventually an associate vice chancellor. She took on challenges and new projects and it paid off.
Unlike my mom, I had a well-established career before I ever gave birth. But in the 9 years since I had my first child, I’ve been laid off from three separate companies, and it has nothing to do with me or my being a parent. It really doesn’t even have that much to do with the economy, it has to do with the way that workers are seen as interchangeable cogs in a machine. Part of the job I had when I had my first child was to work with British publishers to make books appropriate for the American school market. Even that job was outsourced overseas.
In what sense, economic or emotional, would it make sense to “lean in” to that kind of job insecurity? How would that be a good investment?
One of the examples Sandberg gives in her book is about how her husband needed a new job to reduce his commute. He became CEO of SurveyMonkey, and moved their headquarters from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco. Great for the Sandberg family, but what about all those workers in Portland that had “leaned in” to SurveyMonkey?
My husband, who like my parents is a tenured professor, has an unusual amount of job security, but his university, similar in many ways to my mother’s, is a hotbed of stress that hers never was. Sandberg should know all about how unhappy most workers are. Every week day my Facebook feed is full of stressed-out work complaints from people. Even those with traditionally coveted careers like designers and architects are miserable.
Sandberg talks about how important it was for her to learn that it was ok to leave work at 5:30, because you know, she was checking her email late at night. If she wants her employees to “lean in” to their jobs, why not make those jobs more reasonable? Why not, as the head of a huge and popular company, insist that people work no more than 40 hours a week? Why not set the example and simply walk out the door at 5 o’clock? Seriously, most of us aren’t farmers, how hard or efficiently can you be working if you need more than 40 hours a week to accomplish your job? What exactly are you doing?
Sandberg mentions how it wasn’t until she was 9 months pregnant and late for a meeting that she realized the need for maternity parking. I would say that instead of codifying the idea that pregnant women need special help, why not institute “emergency parking” for anyone who needs a little extra help that day? Why not be kind to everyone? Or better yet, why not institute a company culture that when someone in obvious physical distress comes in 10 minutes to a meeting, everyone exhibits a little patience and doesn’t make her feel like she’ll lose her job?
I know a lot of people who like what they do for a living, who like the people with whom they work, and like their companies. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t find their job stressful and insecure. I don’t know anyone who, given the option to have a socially acceptable, financially feasible way of stepping back, at least part way from that job, wouldn’t just lean, but jump at that chance.
If Sandberg really wants people in general, and women in particular, to strive harder, to lean in to their careers, she needs to do her part to make work something more comfortable to lean in to.