Lean Away: a rant

Begun on Friday 11/15 because my life is actually so busy right now that I can’t even write an uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness rant in one sitting.

Ohhhh, how I’ve missed you, blog! (You too, Jump-ers!) Things got really crazy once we set a launch date for Artifice (12-02!) and I’ve been bad at pretty much everything that isn’t that. I spent four entire days this week—all without heat and two without internet—waiting for utilities companies to show up to our space to get us set up for launch. (And learned that customer service on the South Side blows.) I don’t feel like it was a productive week, but finishing a post usually cures me of that, in spite of its complete irrelevance to any of my actual work.

To pass the time at the office today, I decided to finish Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I had been meaning to read it anyway because of all the times women had referenced it during conversation, so I am very grateful to Boyfriend’s Mama for sending it. (Shout out to Wisdom Hypnosis!) I often find that strongly disagreeing with a thesis is what helps me form opinions on a topic and that was definitely the case with Lean In, so, I want to make it very clear that I am glad I read the book, even though I found All Quiet on the Western FrontThings Fall ApartHeart of DarknessAtonement, and most of the rest of the Western canon to be less depressing.

I am, admittedly, the kind of person who does not cotton to self-help or inspirational stuff. Too many years in a religious school that did its best to turn me into Michelle Bachmann had the effect of actually making me kind of irrationally angry at anything “inspirational.” I had hoped that Lean In would escape my ire by being the sort of logically robust and meaningfully complex examination of a topic that a woman with Sandberg’s pedigree should be able to achieve in her sleep. Silly me! The book is clearly written for “all” women, in spite of having relevance to precious few (Whaddup, One Percenters!), myself not included. Let’s just say that book gave me allllllll the feels, the more rational of which are well echoed by any of the Google results for “Lean In feminist critique,” including this one and this one.

Given the more personal nature of my reactions and the time constraints under which I am writing this post, my thoughts are not as clearly laid out as I would like, but here are my problems with the book:

1. It’s women’s fault that they (or other women) aren’t better off in the workplace and informing us of that is influential billionaire Sheryl Sandberg’s big contribution to the world.

I mean, for chrissake, between her net worth and her position at Facebook, the woman could marshal a phalanx of lobbyists to change policy if she wanted to! But that would be aggressive and polarizing, which is clearly not in the cards for a woman whose advice includes “Smile constantly because it makes men feel better.” Instead, she could endow programs to expose girls to technology—and women working in technology—early on and give them training that could give them the confidence to stay in the field in the face of stereotypes and gender bias. But alas, I’m doing that (with no money to ensure that our efforts succeed) while she goes on book tours to tell people how easy it is to be a woman in leadership.

2. She got lucky. (Let me explain before you knock down my door and burn all my bras.)

Sandberg is a talented, well-qualified executive and I do not attribute any of her success to her gender, especially in a “token”-y way. But when you’re already at the executive level at, what, 32(?) because you lucked into an industry that moves quickly, yeah, I bet you do think it’s manageable to balance work and family. She had no particular qualifications for the tech industry when she got involved and so I chalk up her billions earned in it and her fast ascent through it to luck; sue me.

A trajectory like that is not a guarantee in corporate America. In fact, a trajectory like that is pretty rare. It means that you’re able to actually be around for your kids, if not from the very beginning, then certainly by the time they form memories. It means you can afford to hire what must be a really kickass live-in nanny (who probably judges you quietly if your idea of time spent travelling with your kids involves that much TV and junk food). And being a billionaire means you can jet yourself or your family around the world with ease to create family time that’s not an option for other people. So please, Sheryl Sandberg, do not tell me that I won’t have to choose. Don’t tell me it’s all doable if only you have a supportive partner and a sense of humor.

3. I refuse to work that many hours. I just do.

Unless I could find something I was miraculously really passionate about in corporate America from the outset, I could never be one of those people who works 12-hour days all the time. And even then, I don’t think I could physically handle it. You’ll see more of my uvula than my irises if I get less than 7 hours of sleep. Less than that and you may as well dose me with NyQuil and see me in the morning because I’ll be as good as drunk and undeniably useless. There was a time in high school and the first half of college when I was pretty good at running on very little sleep, but the meds I’ve been on since 2009 for a chronic injury make that impossible and the injury itself taught me not to take my health for granted just because I’m young.

Everyone’s advice for how to be successful seems to include a tidbit about getting up at some crazy hour… and you know they still go to bed late. I have a coworker now who gets up waaaaay before the sun to go running and then start his crazy commute into the city. He also left the office at midnight one night this week and was definitely up till 2:30 another night preparing for a presentation that we both found out about at the last minute. I, on the other hand, worked an 11-hour day on Wednesday and then slept through 5 alarms, a cat, and Boyfriend getting ready for work on Thursday morning. I absolutely refuse to sacrifice my health on an ongoing basis in the way that Sheryl was clearly willing to. With no social life outside of work and no sleep, I’d be fit for a straitjacket in no time.

Health issues aside, there are just not very many work-related tasks that seem that important to me. Unless my time in excess of 40 hours per week (or 50 or whatever the expectation at the time of hiring was) is going to be at least as helpful to my career, my employer, or the world as the time I’m sacrificing will be detrimental to me, I’m not okay with being expected to work overtime. Certainly, if I were working in capacities like hers at Google and Facebook, there would be plenty of mission critical tasks. And indeed, it’s tasks that are crucial to our nonprofit that have kept me so busy lately. But the usual path up the corporate ladder is riddled with busywork and I can’t bring myself to “lean in” and care about it after about 5 o’clock.

I’ve always been more of an abstract thinker, so I have trouble justifying things like being obligated to stay at work during set hours, even if my productivity for that day is exhausted early on, or showing up “on time” to work when I have no specific obligations to coworkers or clients at that time and will be no less productive for working from 9:17 to 5:17 instead, etc. It’s not that I’m too precious for hard work; I’ve done everything from nanny for three kids under age 6 to file for five departments at a medium-sized corporate law firm. But busywork or logging “face time” will never be as important to me as my relationships and interests outside of work.

4. IMHO, this woman is either hella neurotic or trying entirely too hard to seem relatable. Either way, I don’t find her continual self-deprecation empowering or reassuring.

Granted I grew up in a different time, but I can’t relate to many of Sandberg’s more problematic insecurities (e.g. constantly thinking she’d be fired for dumb reasons like not having been trained to do something industry-specific) and I grew out of my discomfort with my intelligence a long time ago. Sure, I sometimes doubt my abilities, but so does Boyfriend and anyone else who’s ever come into contact with the educational institution through which we met. And yeah, it sucked to have males tell me I was a “genius” or “soooo smart” (that is not a #humblebrag—I assure you, I am no genius), while they actually meant “You scare the shit out of me and I could never date you,” but it’s not like all men are that way, clearly. (Anyone else think Sheryl’s husband sounds awesome?)

Maybe I’m just a “bad” and unlikeable woman and that’s why I can’t much relate, but she sounds like the type who would have claimed to think she failed every exam, forcing even her friends who knew they hadn’t done very well to reassure her of her intelligence. I had a hard time dealing with some of the more “social” females on campus in college for this very reason. You got into an ‘Ivy Plus’ institution, so I know you’re not dumb. Why must you act that way, particularly in front of men?

If this sounds all woman-bashy, I don’t mean for it to; I’ve known and been annoyed with men who do this, too. But I think it’s a more important issue for women. I view it as in insult to, and a problem for, all of us when a woman downplays her competence or intelligence for societal gain. C-suite appointment at a Fortune 500 company or no, I don’t think it’s worth it to perpetuate the “good,” non-threatening woman trope. Pave the way by being a “ball buster.” Pave the way by never forcing a smile or making a self-deprecating remark. Pave the way by being whoever the hell you actually are. Just don’t tell me that you’re paving the way for my generation by acting like you just walked off the set of an 80s sitcom.

On the other hand, seeming non-threatening may very well have been helpful to Sandberg’s cause. (She seems to acknowledge that it was.) Though I’d still resent it, I would feel less icky about her demure act if she presented it as an actual, strategic act for putting people at ease in the presence of a strong woman (which I suspect/hope is closer to the truth in her case, anyway).

Even without going out of my way to make others comfortable, I have felt patronized in workplace scenarios; that is not going to improve with women like Sheryl Sandberg reinforcing the non-aggressive stereotype and telling others to do the same. For instance, in recently acquainting myself with a new group of colleagues, I initially had no reason to bare my teeth, as it were. When I did (at the aforementioned utility companies, in point of fact), an older and well-intentioned man on the staff got all paternal because he felt that it was somehow wrong for me to be that angry and aggressive. I’ve got some news for everyone who feels squirmy when women get upset: If I have to put on my bossypants[1], I’m going to do it and I don’t want to hear any man’s crap about how he’ll take care of it so I can go back to being my “normal” sunny self.

Being sweet and upbeat is definitely not something I can always pull off in a genuine way, nor do I feel that I automatically owe it to anyone to try. I’m a human being with complex emotions and I’ll be angry at other people’s incompetence or misconduct whenever I feel it’s justified, thankyouverymuch. (I’ll also be respectful and polite unless something other than that is warranted, of course.) Why does Sandberg’s notion of letting the emotions you feel in your personal life bleed into your professional life only allow for women to cry at work, but not to bring their “scarier” emotions with them into their professional lives?

On a related note: Though I can’t find it now, I swear that there exists a really good article on women’s use of apologies and emoticons in workplace settings as a means to seem less bossy/demanding/aggressive/unlikeable/etc. Pardon my language, but f**k that s**t! 🙂

To me, Sandberg’s entire book feels like a smiley face slapped over a plethora of complex issues. Speaking of which…

5. There are so many really hard questions left!

I get that this wasn’t supposed to be an all-encompassing guide to professional success as a woman, but she left so many sticky issues untouched, even if you don’t question her non-threatening approach. How does one seem deferential, confident, competent, non-threatening, and capable of leadership all at the same time in order to land a job in the first place? What are we supposed to do about wearing enough makeup/nailpolish/perfume to seem like we “take care of ourselves” but not so much that we’re assumed to have any number of negative qualities ranging from poor eyesight to bad moral character? Do I wear a more conservative outfit to a meeting with a woman so she won’t think I’m a hussy, but a slightly more revealing one to a meeting with a man so he doesn’t think I’m a ball-busting prude? And what’s the deal with heels? Are we expected to wear them even though they’re anti-ergonomic torture devices (at least when worn for an 8+ hour workday)? Do we have to go work out in the middle of the day with colleagues (a thing a consultant girlfriend of mine claimed was par for the course) to seem like team players, even if that situation is all kinds of potentially fraught? If both partners work, but one’s earning potential is much higher or her/his job is much more demanding, should the housework still average a 50/50 split? Or, in other words, is feeling equally valued more important than being equally valuated? Should nannies have continued visitation with the kids that they raise, even after the arrangement is ended due to relocation or the dawning of the age of afterschool activities? (As a former nanny, the only correct answer to that is “yes,” imho. It’s heartbreaking for older kids and nannies to be cut out of one another’s lives.) What about the ambitious women who don’t already smile on cue and otherwise try to seem nonthreatening? Should we start?

I, for one, don’t plan to.

I guess what really got my goat today was that, after a week of feeling powerless and useless because I couldn’t hold the various utility companies and other people accountable for their lies or errors that were preventing our progress (seeing as Artifice isn’t yet paying its own bills), I read a book that told me to accept that I would often be disrespected in my professional life and to kowtow to the people doing it lest they also dislike me. I loathe feeling ineffective and disrespected—as Boyfriend can attest after witnessing many a rant to that effect—and I refuse to accept that coloring within the lines is the best option for most women, including me. But maybe that’s why I’m not in Corporate America.


[1] Bossypants was a way better feminist manifesto, if you ask me. ❤ Tina Fey

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