28 Books - Book 1 - Lean In – Women, Work and the Will To Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
I remember the first time I got in trouble for raising my hand too much. I was in 4th grade in Mrs. Watson’s class. We were doing a science lesson – building a compass out of a piece of cork, a needle, a magnet and a bowl of water. As she was conducting class I would raise and raise my hand and for the entire lesson she didn’t call on me. I knew this game, she had been doing it for awhile, not just with me but with a few of the other smarter kids in class too. So, I did the only thing I could do to get attention. I cried and threw a fit.
During recess, Mrs. Watson told me to stay back. She didn’t yell, but I definitely did. I was an over eager kid, and a know-it-all loud mouth to boot. I plainly didn’t understand why she wouldn’t call on me if I knew the answer. What she said is something that has been repeated to me so many times since. Just because you know the answer, doesn’t mean other people don’t know it too. I hated that answer then, and it still bums me out now, though the older I get the more I value the ability to keep my mouth shut (sometimes). It’s not that I hate it because I like to show off, or that I think other people are dumber than I am. I think it’s because something within me tells me that if I don’t say it, it will go unsaid. If it goes unsaid, something might happen where a detail is missed in a group project, or that unused information won’t make a case stronger.
I’ve struggled with this my whole life. In my career, at school, in my community service fraternity. With my friends at a bar, in interviews, at the dinner table. It’s a habit that makes me seem dismissive, rude, clueless to my surroundings. People have told me my tone is often condescending, that I don’t care about other’s opinions or even a few times, that I’m power hungry. I don’t deny the perception, but I used to not embrace it. I used to over correct my behavior. I would suck up to someone that I might have minimized to only later repeat information that I think they still missed. I would apologize for my behavior, only to skulk and mope around for weeks after because I felt slighted, diminished and excluded. I would always be upset and rant with my friends about my feelings, and for the most part, they didn’t know what to say. My parents would tell me to just keep my head down and do my work. That always rubbed me the wrong way. I always felt like if I backed down from bossy ways, I would lose respect. I always felt I wouldn’t be doing my passion justice if I approached my projects in a melancholy way.
I must admit when I started this first book, Lean In – Women, Work and the Will To Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, for my year-long self-discovery project, I was feeling a bit melancholy anyway. I just started to throw myself full force into finding a new full time role after growing bored and indifferent with freelancing. I left my job at Red Bull a year ago at the time, and I had been spending a lot of time reflecting on what went right and what went wrong with my time there. I had grown up, career wise, with Red Bull. I was in, for the most part, a male dominated group for my last two and a half years there. There are a lot of women at Red Bull, don’t mistake that. More than you would think. But in my area, that wasn’t necessarily the case. I was constantly trying to prove myself. The way I proved myself was loud and blustery, a la Teddy Roosevelt or Amy Poehler (both of whom are idols of mine). Teddy was a little more traditional on the loud and blustery front, but Amy and the characters she embodies…well, you wouldn’t call Leslie Knope quiet would you? Or her Smart Girls project “quaint”? The truth is, in the real world, in rare cases, this approach works women. In rare cases. And those are the cases you always read about. In my dreams, I am Peggy Olson, strutting down the hallway, shades on, cigarette in mouth, marching my way to dominance. The reality of that is far from the truth. But I hope that someday I can be both smart and hungry, with no fear of going after what I want.
I must admit, I did some pre-googling research on the book before I read it. Sandberg is often in the news – why wouldn’t she be? She’s the COO of Facebook. I came across an article or a comment on an article about Sandberg being someone’s aerobics instructor while she was in college. The gist of it was someone like Sandberg has been doing “the most” her entire life. Before I even read the book, that rang true to me. I’ve never done something halfway – if I do, it’s time to bring out the big guns and ask what alien imposter has taken over my body. So, going into it, I was thinking that this book might be very much directed at someone like me. Not to sound disappointed, but this manifesto seemed to me more of a catch-all for as many types of women she’s encountered, and not something that’s specific to a Type A go getter who struggles with her image (that’s me!). There is nothing wrong with Sandberg’s direction at all, the book just didn’t really appeal to me…until the last two to three chapters.
If you know me personally, you know I’m a completionist, or at least, I try to be. When I game, I want to try to get to as near 100% as possible to the campaign. When I binge shows – I don’t sleep until it’s either all the way over, or it’s necessary for me to get a few hours of shut eye. Growing up, I read each of the Harry Potter books in less than a day, and in the case of Goblet of Fire through The Deathly Hallows, I read them from the moment of release so I could be one of the first on the online forums to start a discussion. This book, which in my heart I thought I would devour in a few hours, took me weeks to finish. I will admit I have been distracted by what John Oliver has been calling “Stupid Watergate” and I’ve been tinkering with my resume and website while applying for jobs, while also fulfilling my freelance contracts. I kept thinking to myself, well, eventually she’s got to talk about not backing down in a big way, right? She definitely spoke early on in Chapter 2, “Sit at the Table”, about how you can’t really start to get what you want until you actually sit down at the table with the rest of the boys. I found that though kind of common sense, I didn’t need to be told that, because I already do that. Again though, this book wasn’t tailored specifically to me, and I needed to remember that. So, I slogged on until I got to Chapter 9, “The Myth of Doing It All”. Like Sandberg, and many, many other women in the working world, I loathe this concept. Doing it All is a catch all phrase used to put down feminism and establish that the old ideals of keeping a home as a woman’s number one job. We don’t live in the modern era anymore, we live in a post-modern society. I’d like to start taking back the phrase “doing it all.” What doing it all means to me is exactly what I’m doing now, or what I want to be doing over the next few years. I want to work on projects that I’m passionate about with teams of people who care about their work too. I want to play video games, spend the time to cook tasty comfort food a few times a week, go to the movies, hike through the Colorado Rockies, drink all kinds of craft beer and start taking my writing ambitions seriously. Maybe one day I’ll finally drag a guy into that mix and find in him that partner who embodies the bastions of equality and loves some of the same things I do. But living my best life is doing it all for me, and that’s my definition of it. This chapter got me really fired up because it just enraged me with recognition that there are still millions and millions, perhaps billions of people who ascribe to the myth of a woman who’s both beautiful and smart, who succeeds at work all the time and raises a family in the vein of a perfect Pinterest board. If that is someone’s goal, great. But I really want to tailor people’s perceptions that the definition of doing it all or wanting it all is subjective to the owner of that ideal, not to the people who label them that way.
Which brings me back to the final two chapters that finally spoke to me. I was wondering if she was ever going to answer the question of what to do if you’ve leaned in your entire life. As someone who’s tried a lot of tactics through the years (in high school, it was sitting in the front row in all my classes; in college, it was asserting out loud to my fraternity brothers that I wanted to be a leader in Alpha Phi Omega from day one; at Red Bull, it was always contributing in any way I could), I was hoping Sandberg would reveal some magic tactic. She didn’t. She revealed a strategy. One that I had tried to employ at my time at Red Bull, but failed because of my dismissiveness and quite frankly because I didn’t have time for it. In Chapter 10, “Let’s Start Talking About It”, I found what I was looking for. This is a strategy that’s has been dominating the feminism world for awhile now. The truth is, as a larger society, we don’t like to talk about it. We don’t like to talk about the wage gap on an equal level. More women talk about it than men. In Hollywood, the most relevant case of a man supporting equal pay is what William H. Macy did for Emmy Rossum on Shameless. After Rossum demanded to be paid equal, Macy fully and publically supported her effort. Back in the real world, on the levels that the vast majority of white-collar Americans are, you don’t have men talking about it. Not just about the pay, but about the perceptions of women in the environments they work in, how they work in groups, the value that they might bring with a specific skill set. Sexism is overly present in the work place still. I’ve experienced it. You’ve experienced it. Women are often told to sit down, take notes and only contribute if called on. One time, I was told by a colleague that I didn’t know anything about the sport we were working on, so I should just let them handle it and I could just support. What that meant was writing the copy they wanted written, talking to the contacts they picked (or not even talking to them at all – but just providing the materials so they could do it themselves), and keeping my mouth shut while providing the budget to get the jobs done. I was incensed. I remember bringing it up in an end of year review with my VP at the time. He took it seriously enough to have conversations with me about it over the course of a few months, but we never took action. Why? I know the problem wasn’t unique to me, as much as the anxiety in my head told me that it was. Why are millions of women everyday metaphorically staring up at the upper management food chain, shaking their heads but not their fists? Of course, you could extrapolate that men don’t want to lose anymore dominance in society than they already have. But that evidence is feeling based, and no matter how many true facts you bring to the table, at the end of the day, it is the current way the structure of our societal institutions are built.
It will change as time goes on. That’s not my optimism talking, that’s history talking. You can pull from history books how society has changed over time to improve equality of the sexes. And that’s what Sandberg concludes the book with in Chapter 12, “Working Together Toward Equality”. We will all work together, some begrudgingly, to get to the point of equilibrium. It happens in nature, in science, everyday. This is where I found my answer to my query of what to do when you already lean in. If I’m already sitting at the table, if I’m already working to improve my perception at work, If I’m already talking about fixing problems, then the only logical conclusion is to keep working towards the end goal, every day. I can work at in micro ways, like properly asking for a say in a project, or in a macro way, like supporting Planned Parenthood and women’s access to health care. I’m not here for the personal clichés though. “Never Apologize” is my least favorite cliché. Because sometimes you do need to apologize for blowing up at a colleague or dismissing a strategy that you haven’t considered. I’m not here for the women’s only groups, the pussy hats or the hairy legs (though I will gladly go to those groups, wear a hat and support women who don’t want to shave – which is a modern burden tbh, because smooth legs feel great on clean bedsheets) – I’m here for getting the work done, improving upon whatever came before me, and pushing myself to reach my personal goals. What’s important, from a feminist perspective, is that those three things are goals that both men and women can achieve equally. It’s something that I can do regardless of my gender, because those are non-gendered goals to ascribe to. I didn’t think that’s what I would take from Sandberg’s post-modern feminist manifesto, but I’m glad my introspectiveness pulled and confirmed these goals out from within me and on to the written page. So, if you’re like me, woman or man, who’s always worked their hardest, done their best and are hungry for whatever lands on their plate, just keep in mind the universalness of those ambitions and pass them on to others who also lean in.