Leaning In Without Falling Out of Your Seat

I just finished Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – a fascinating work.  While most of her arguments and anecdotes were not new information to me (have heard and read them elsewhere), two particular passages from the book struck me:

From page 132 (emphasis mine):

It’s not only working parents who are looking for more hours in the day; people without children are also overworked, maybe to an even greater extent…After the married women spoke about how hard it was to balance their lives, the single woman interjected that she was tired of people not taking her need to have a life seriously.  She felt that her colleagues were always rushing off to be with their families, leaving her to pick up the slack.  She argued “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight – and this is just as legitimate as their kids’ soccer game – because going to a party is the only way I might actually meet someone and start a family so I can have a soccer game to go to one day!”  I often quote this story to make sure single employees know that they, too, have every right to a full life. 

The gut reaction upon reading this passage (since I could not do the Dance of Joy right there on Metro North) was, “YES. THIS.” In my previous life in Lawyer Land, I worked in a firm that prided itself on being a family friendly environment with flexible work arrangements for support staff with families, and (until the policy was abused) a very liberal attitude towards children in the office.  I was never discriminated outright in that job as a single, childless woman and was happy to work in a firm where family was as important as your billable hours. In the legal industry, it is very hard for women to find that career/family balance.  However, I was not without my self-doubt.  Was the fact that I wanted to leave early to pursue graduate education or take a day off to go to a program at the Museum of Modern Art less important than my colleagues who had to take time off because their children were sick or had an unexpected snow day?  What was being said behind my back?  Was it affecting how people perceived my work ethic?

I’m in an office now with much different demographics than that law firm, but when I have those moments of doubt about my right to a full life (even if that life is without children), I know that I deserve that right.

From page 164:

The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves.  Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.  In 2004, four female executives at Merrill Lynch started having lunch together once a month. They shared their accomplishments and frustrations.  They brainstormed about business.  After the lunches, they would all go back to their offices and tout one another’s achievements.  They couldn’t brag about themselves, but they could easily do it for their colleagues. Their careers flourished and each rose up the ranks to reach managing director and executive office level.  The queen bee was banished, and the hive became stronger. (Source)

Search back to my earlier posts on gender in libraries and you’ll be able to keenly sense my despise for the attitude we have in our profession for eating our young, being the Mean Ones (Girls and Guys) – in short, a cutthroat attitude.   Now, this should not be interpreted as “don’t be competitive” – finding a job, and staying good at that job to advance and allow you to take the next steps in your career, require a certain level of drive.  (Remember: THERE IS NO SILVER SPOON.)  But, don’t let that drive take over your life.  You will burn many bridges you can’t afford to lose.

As you know, I ran for ALA Council for the third consecutive year, this year with an informal ticket of candidates.  I would be lying through my teeth if I said I wasn’t going through anxiety about election results, and a massive amount of self-doubt about my ability to win an election.  I would also be lying if I said I wouldn’t be upset if I didn’t win – because I worked my keister off (along with my fellow  ticket members) to campaign for the seat. (I now have keen awareness of the mental, physical, and emotional toll that Presidential candidates go through – even for an association office, the campaign work was tiring*.)  What I will not do is let that anger and sadness dictate my life, especially to my fellow candidates – building each other up does so much more than taking each other down.  We all pledged this evening to support whomever from our caucus won, give virtual hugs and pep talks to those that didn’t, and not let jealousy, bitterness, and spite over one election dictate the rest of our professional lives.  (And then go out for shawarma afterwards.**)

Lean In is not without its controversy (see this, this, and this – and that’s just a very small sample set), but it is a fascinating read that affected me in many ways.  I hope to continue expounding on Sandberg’s thoughts.

* True story: Back in December 2008, I happened to be visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art the same day as Bill and Hillary Clinton – and came face to face with the former Secretary of State.  She looked lovely, but she also looked old.  You could tell that the 2008 primary took a toll on her in many ways.   After this ALA election cycle, I have empathy for what she went through. (As for Bill – he looked GREAT. Veganism looks good on him.)

** ALA Election results are posted on 3 May 2013, the same day as the United States release of Iron Man 3.  The shawarma jokes, they write themselves.

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6 Responses to Leaning In Without Falling Out of Your Seat

  1. Genesis says:

    I loved this book. Does it apply to every woman? No. Is “leaning in” by itself enough to change the culture? No. But I believe it can be valuable in the process.

    One of the things that got me riled up was the evidence of success being positively correlated with likability for men and negatively correlated with likability for women. It’s not surprising, but it still makes me feel like: “AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!! HULK SMASH!!!!!”

    But I also wonder how things would turn around for women in the corporate world if a 40-hour work week became the norm. I’m not holding out any hopes here, but it’s no surprise to me that women opt out of the insane schedules that many companies expect of people who want to move up and take on leadership roles. I think equal representation in the workforce would come about a lot faster if work schedules allowed for people (female, male, married, single, parents, whatever) to have at least a modicum of time for a real life in whatever form they choose. I have two kids and work full time. My husband is a stay at home dad. Even though I rarely work more than 40 hours a week, it can be hard to carve out the time for the things I need and want to do outside of basic work and family needs. But I am so grateful that I can do this – pursue a career that I love with the support of a husband who’s willing to be the primary caregiver. I can’t even IMAGINE how we would make it work if I was working 50 or 60 hours a week – sometimes it feels like we are barely pulling it off now. At several points in the book when she was talking about the schedules of various women executives I thought, “Fuck THAT! There’s no way in hell I’d “lean in” if it meant I had to work those crazy hours!”

    Anyway, I spent a lot of time thinking about this book and how it applies to me and the women around me and how to effect change. Now I’m thinking about starting a Lean In Circle: http://leanin.org/circles/

  2. Jessica says:

    I am looking forward to reading this book. I am in complete agreement about women supporting and mentoring each other and not being a “mean girl” or tearing each other down. I do have to take exception to part of that first quote though. I am disappointed that the validity of the single woman getting off early to go to a party relies on the premise that at that party she may meet a mate with whom to bear children. How about the validity of having a full, social life with friends and culture and joy? It doesn’t have to involve a partner and kids to make time off of work or free time valid.

    • librariankate7578 says:

      Oh, I had a little problem with that part of the quote too. Family is not just genetics – it is the friends that make up your social circle.

  3. Catherine says:

    Is anyone else interested in discussing this book from a libraries/LIS perspective? I’d be willing to organize a Google Hangout. I’ve had a few conversations with friends in other industries but always interesting to look at the smaller picture, too. Thoughts?

    • librariankate7578 says:

      I’ll be guest hosting an episode of Circulating Ideas (Steve Thomas’ podcast) and it just happens that both my panelists and I are reading or have read Lean In. We will be making that the focus of our discussions. Should go live sometime in June.

      We could also convene a discussion group on gender and libraries and Lean in at ALA Annual in the Networking Uncommons. If there is interest, I’ll book a time.

  4. Genesis says:

    Yes, I’d love to discuss, both online and at ALA.

    I submitted a proposal for this year’s California Library Association conference where a group of women will be discussing issues raised in this book from a library perspective – we’re looking to make it a very interactive session and involve the audience in the discussion. Haven’t heard back yet, but I think it could be a really interesting conversation.

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