Should Women Lean In or Lean On?

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, believes that women have themselves to blame for not succeeding in business and profession. That is what her opponents are saying anyway. Still, taken at face value, her message seems worth listening to. In her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she encourages women to overcome internal psychological barriers, break out of traditional roles as nurturers and sexual partners, and climb up the corporate ladder. She wants women to stop assuming second-rate careers in anticipation of motherhood and family life.

Put this way, the message is of course a no-brainer. It is clear that women do need to build confidence in negotiating their lives, be it in the corporate sector or within their families.

She points out that complaints and excuses about gender bias won’t get women anywhere. Instead, Sandberg asks women to believe in themselves and give their careers their all. She asks women to “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave.” In other words, women should not doubt their ability to combine work and family, and thereby edge themselves out of plum assignments before they even have a baby. Leaning in can promote a virtuous circle, she believes. If women simply assume that they can juggle work and family, they will step forward, succeed professionally, and position themselves to ask from their employers what they need in terms of work-family balance.

Women are not only insecure about their ability to step into leadership roles, she says, but they are quick to admit their weaknesses to others, something men rarely do. She encourages women to get rid of their fears and assume a confident stance.
Sandberg’s critics have correctly pointed out that simply “leaning in” is not enough for women to make inroads into positions of power. Public policy is an important factor. But in the era of sequester and budget cuts, government support is waning, not rising, for working families.

In times of economic hardship, companies find it easy to hire only those who have no private demands on their time. For example, Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, recently announced that her employees would no longer be able to telecommute. Never a more retro policy had been coined. The truth is that in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic problems and long commutes make it impossible for most people except the very young and unattached to abide by a 8 to 5 work day, telecommuting is not just a luxury but a necessity. Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg may have families or hired help to take care of their kids, but most parents do not have that option. Not to mention that most parents do not want to miss out on important milestones in their children’s lives, like school recitals, baseball games, and swim meets.

Without my parents or other family members to support me, I found it difficult to rise up the professional ladder and raise a family of four children including two stepchildren. I was forced to go on the Mommy track.

Sandberg also does not address the issue of racial inequality in the workplace. Many women of ethnic backgrounds find that white women have an edge when it comes to advancement. I, myself, was once told by a manager, “We have promoted all these women so we have satisfied the affirmative action requirement; we no longer need to promote you.” The women who had been promoted were all white, of course. During workshops on diversity, I have heard people argue, “It is natural for managers to promote people like themselves,” as an excuse for not advancing women or minorities.

Sandberg is right in some ways. Women are obstacles to their own progress, but not quite in the way she claims. My own observation is that when it comes to getting ahead, women are their own worst enemies. In my working life spanning nearly 35 years, I have found women managers to often be petty, rigid, and insecure. Instead of mentoring other women, they try to fit into the old boys’ network. When the rare woman manager tries to support and nurture her female employees, she is seen as soft and weak.

It is also ironic that Sandberg herself did not have a female mentor but a male one in the form of Larry Summers, who, early in her career, tapped her for a post at the World Bank.
Growing up in India during the post-Independence era, I was admired by my teachers and my community for my outspokenness and my ambition, but in the United States, I often found other women resenting me for these very qualities.

And yet, I am glad that I progressed as far as I did, so that now I am dependent on no one for my financial security. I have the satisfaction of looking back upon an interesting, rewarding, and important technical career in the energy field. I am happy that I followed my passions, like writing, even if sometimes it meant sitting in front of a computer rather than doing arts and crafts with my children. If anything, I wish I had pursued my career with more zeal.

So what should women do? Should they relentlessly pursue ambition? Or should they keep looking for Mr. Right? Should they feel incomplete if they do not have true love, perfect children, and a successful career?

The truth is few people have it all. Many women are married, but unhappily so. Many find themselves inadequate as mothers. Others crave for a Prince Charming. Almost every woman I know falls short of her own expectations. Perhaps women still lack the ability to be confident and secure in their choices and the resulting outcomes and have a tendency to blame themselves when things do not work out.

At the same time, simply having confidence and bolstering inner lives is not enough.

Women also need to lean on society, by campaigning for telecommuting, flexible working hours, subsidized childcare, paid maternity leave, gender, racial, and ethnic equality, and male respect in love and sex. Above all, they need to lean on our society for acceptance of female assertiveness. Only then will women lead successful, and more importantly, happier lives.

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