Monday, March 18, 2013

Lean In

In September 2011, badly needing redirection, the iconic Hewlett-Packard — famously founded in a Palo Alto garage — reached out to Meg Whitman.  The new CEO had recently lost a bid to become California's governor, but had a strong track record.  In over ten years at its helm, she had helped transform EBay from fledgling enterprise into an Internet powerhouse.  Meg Whitman belongs to a still very small and select class: the woman chief executive.

Last summer Yahoo, yet another Silicon Valley trailblazer founded by Stanford trained engineers, was seeking a way to get back on track after years of setbacks and management turmoil.  It turned to Melissa Mayer who rose from employee number 20 to senior executive at Google.  Meyer arrived in Sunnyvale in her final weeks of pregnancy, something that probably made as much news as her becoming the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 Company.  After a little more than six months on the job, Mayer took a drastic step for a free wheeling company many of whose employees worked from at home, in some cases all of the time.  She essentially called everyone back to the office, a move aimed at reconnecting and thus energizing the work force to be more mutually creative.  It caused a firestorm both within the company and perhaps more so in the media.  How could SHE?  Among the many criticisms aimed at Ms. Mayer were ones that related as much to who she was as what and why she was doing.  How could a woman, of all people, essentially end flextime?

The special treatment given to Mellissa Mayer is not new to the select number of women who have reached the higher echelons of their chosen profession or workplace.  No doubt Meg Whitman experienced much the same over the years.  Women, for example, are routinely described as "bossy" when doing the same leadership thing that would be, and is, admired in a male counterpart.  Sadly, few women climbing the career ladder are willing to publically or even privately confront this or other forms of ongoing gender discrimination.  Instead they play along in the hope of continuing their advancement and in constant fear of hitting the proverbial glass ceiling, or worse losing their jobs.  Rather than challenge, many speak only about how much progress has been made since the advent of the Women's Movement, a subject or rather a myth that I have discussed in previous posts and in my book.  Now Mayer’s former Google colleague, and presently Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg has broken that acquiescence, that silence.

In some ways Lean In is a highly personal book, one that reflects Sandberg's own journey from a happy Miami childhood through entry level and then senior positions in the public sector and ultimately in business.  Unlike Melissa Mayer who, as a Stanford trained engineer, took the expected Silicon Valley path, Harvard economics major and then MBA Sandberg came to the tech world from the Treasury Department.  Despite reaching her goal through smarts (top honors in school), hard work and merit, hers is hardly a Horatio Alger story.  She came from a nurturing affluent home with a well-educated mother and ophthalmologist father and with siblings, one a surgeon and the other a pediatrician, who also went on the bright careers.  Along the way, she had great mentors, not the least her thesis adviser at Harvard, Larry Summers, for whom she later worked both at the World Bank and at Treasury.  It's not a starting from scratch story.  Rather, and more importantly, it's the kind of career that mirrors the one of many in senior positions, public and private.  So you might say, Sheryl Sandberg came up in the usual American way.

Usual that is for a man.  Her life and the challenges presented at every stage didn't so much mirror that of male colleagues but of women in this country.  And that isn't only women in the workforce, but all women: how they are judged, what opportunities they encounter and what outcomes they have in life.  As Sandberg points out time and again, women are seen differently, paid less (than men doing the same job and underpaid in the absolute), passed over more, and must function with an often unspoken but always present handicap.  Even fifty years after the modern Women's Movement made such a splash, women hold few top jobs (or even an equal number of jobs) in business, government or institutions.  That means fewer CEOs, Senators and Members of Congress, college presidents, clergy etc. than their male counterparts.  Fifty percent of the population doesn't translate into 50/50 in the workforce.  And that workforce includes at home where few women enjoy truly 50/50 partnership with their spouses, something Sandberg considers an unmet essential.  In a revealing anecdote, she reports of a man telling a colleague that he has to go home to "babysit".  Imagine a woman characterizing being with her children as "baby sitting".  In both cases, is that something called parenting?

Sandberg's book is receiving a lot of attention and a substantial amount of flack, some of it from women reviewers.  She has been accused of speaking from a privileged place — extreme wealth and power, hardly the average woman — and for name-dropping — admittedly her acknowledgment pages especially are a little over the top.  But from beginning to end, I found an author well aware of who and what she is and certainly of her unique position.  In fact, it is because she has done so well (and clearly because she didn't have to) that she felt compelled to address gender issues head on.  Perhaps this book was written to inspire other women, but also to express honestly what they face and what they likely think but fear to communicate.  It is a compelling fact filled book that, while certainly not faultless, should be read by both women and men.  It's pages turn quickly but its message can't be taken in, hit and run.  It requires deliberate and lengthy consideration.

We most certainly can thank men for the still held back role of women in our society.  Our prejudices (or more accurately pre-conceived notions) and in recent times our fear of competition have been, and continue to be, at play.  The fabled Horatio Alger's in the American story may have come from humble beginnings, but they shared the distinct and common advantage of maleness.  They started with a leg up.  No one suggested that they didn't have the physical strength or temperament to do their job; no one assumed in advance that they would be moody or considered them bossy when they led.  Sandberg cites research showing that male leaders are both respected and liked while women doing exactly the same job, performing in the same way, may be also respected but are most often are considered "unlikable".  Some people think it a complement to say how well a woman is doing in a "man's job".  Yes, a man's job, not simply a job to be done.

But Sandberg doesn't place the entire burden and blame on men.  She knows that women can be their own worst enemies, both in not reaching as high as they should — limiting (sometimes purposefully) what opportunities they seek — and in often not standing up sufficiently for their female peers.  Lean In has been criticized for urging women to reach high, for perhaps putting too great a premium on both work away from home and on success.  It's a bad wrap, because Sandberg continually emphasises that we all face a range of choices and that no one should put a valued judgment on the path we chose to follow.  That said, this book's ultimate message to women is certainly that they should cast aside the mental and other barriers that might be in their way.  Women should lean in — be all in — to what they're dong, something that men have done, as if by second nature.

It isn't all men's fault and it isn't all women's fault.  I can't speak for women, but can for men who Sandberg urges to be, to become, true 50/50 partners including (and most especially) at home.  It isn't enough for women to be committed feminists.  Men must join them in what remains an uphill fight and unfinished business.  I'm so glad Sandberg points out that, despite her own success and the road already traveled thanks to Gloria Steinem and others like her, progress has remains quite limited.  I could not agree more.  I've always considered myself a feminist, still do.  So I invite you — especially men — to either join me in that for the first time or to reenlist. 

Say what you will about Sandberg's book, about her rarified perch, her dropping names, her first person account or any other criticism.  But this is ultimately a provocative work, a conversation starter.  And it is a conversation, an honest conversation about gender, in which we need urgently to engage.  Our future depends on all of us — men and women — leaning in.  If we are lagging behind these days, count our keeping women in their "place" as one of the reasons.  Blame it also in us men not being in there 50/50.  We may not have the power to do everything, but we do have the power to change that.

Note: Not surprisingly for a FaceBook executive, Cheryl Sandberg has started a community Lean In dedicated to this subject, a way to learn or get involved.  Check it out.

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