Lean Together

Lean InIt has been hailed as a turning point in the feminist debate. It has also been written off as an apology for Big Business. And everything in-between. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead has created the media whirlwind that its author intended in her quest to disrupt the status quo.

One hesitates to add yet more words to those column inches. But there’s an important connection that seems to have been overlooked. It’s why this fine book is ultimately flawed.

And it is a fine book. Sandberg may be wildly rich, absurdly well-connected and bossy – but it’s easy to like her [just watch her TED talk]. She’s clever and sincere and kind and, in some places, LOL funny. And she’s trying to be a peacemaker: “The gender wars need an immediate and lasting peace”, she writes.

Lean In is helpful. It abounds with nudges – ideas on how we can dismantle the barriers that our subtle prejudices create. From the Goldman Sachs partner who cancelled his dinner schedule and insisted on holding one-to-one meetings with his team only at breakfast or lunch – so that he could mentor women equally and without any hint of impropriety. To the story of the hospital physician who decided never to ask for a show of hands when he turned to his junior medics on the ward rounds (men being typically far more confident of their own abilities) but instead would ask his questions directly, and always evenly between the male and female junior doctors. And the CEO of American Express who, knowing that women are more likely to interrupted, will always stop a meeting to point it out when it happens.

Sandberg cites, as an example of what can be done, an initiative at Harvard Business School to address the under-performance of women and international students. The school’s culture was rigorously examined and ‘soft’ adjustments introduced to foster collaboration and respect. In just two years, the performance gap virtually disappeared – and overall student satisfaction levels rose. In a more equal environment, everyone was happier.

Sandberg is not blaming anyone in particular – we’re all complicit. She’s trying to inspire us all to engage in a ‘final push’ that will give birth to a world where there are no female leaders, just leaders. And she’s optimistic that things are changing as younger people, both men and women, look for new models of family life.

But ultimately – as The Times reviewer described it – Lean In is a manifesto for ambitious women. That’s not meant unkindly. Sandberg recognises that everyone should be able to make their own choices, and that most women don’t have anything like her resources or opportunities: “I am fully aware that most women are not focussed on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day”.

To change the world, says Sandberg, we need women to reach leadership positions. Women at the top will, she believes, lead to fairer treatment for all women, and a whole new dynamic in the workplace.

It’s a worthy aim. But is it as ‘simple’ as this? Is it maybe even a mirage?

The work environment within which Sandberg operates is brutally demanding. ‘Commitment’ boils down to being what we used to call a workaholic. It’s received wisdom that only the paranoid survive. Sandberg cites research that 69% of corporate managers can’t even go to bed without checking their inbox. OK, she is a self-styled alpha – so she enjoys the pressure. But this increasing addiction to work is not confined to Palo Alto. Crazy hours are expected across many professions nowadays. And it seems to be going global as well.

Interestingly, it’s not necessarily because employers demand total commitment, overtly at least. Sandberg quotes a McKinsey managing partner calling a town hall meeting to urge the entire team in his office to take their vacation. Most of the people who were resigning reported that they felt ‘burnt out’ – but they all had unused vacation that they had chosen not to take.

Almost wherever we look, the workplace is becoming relentlessly competitive. It’s an assumed ‘passion’ that jeopardises family life. And as work becomes more hyper-competitive, women’s opportunities shrink. Pregnancy and maternity leave especially become huge issues. Sandberg acknowledges her own fears that – even at her level and with her talents – her job and prospects at Google would be diminished if she took ‘too much’ time off [that is more than a week or two] after her first child was born.

Sandberg acknowledges that it’s a rat race. “A career is a marathon”, she writes. She believes that getting more women to win the race will change things. Maybe that’s true, but there’s surely a delusion here? We can’t all be leaders. Indeed, by definition, very few of us can. We’re still stuck in a rat race.

What if we try instead to slow down and step off this devilish hamster wheel that we’ve created?

First off, I think, we would want to reflect on the culture of contest that is embedded into our societies and so into our working lives. We have to recognise the myth of the inevitability of all–pervasive competition.

The irony of course is that the attitudes that enable this, the behaviours that can best shift our work environment from hyper-competition towards cooperation are precisely the ones in which women typically excel: humility, empathy and compassion.

To be fair, Sandberg isn’t asking women to drop these qualities. Her focus is on developing assertiveness. [And, as someone who often struggles with assertiveness, I have to say that I found her advice wise and helpful.]

But even if Lean In assertiveness can win the day for women, it’s likely only to further increase hyper-competitiveness. Women can’t fight their way to the top and then work 9-5 (unless they start their email at home at 5am, and continue to work late into the night after the kids have gone to bed).

The real challenge, surely, is to escape the culture of contest, to create new forms and structures [Enterprise 3.0?] that reflect the accumulating evidence of the desire for work that is characterised by reciprocity, sharing and collaboration.

If we can do that, we can really change the world. Because in a workplace built on cooperation and reciprocity, women’s contributions would be naturally and unremarkably accepted. Mothers would be able to follow Sandberg’s advice to ‘Do What You’d Do If You Weren’t Afraid’ and take whatever maternity leave they think is right for their child – without paying a big career penalty. It would be the world for which Sandberg is calling, where “expectations will not be set by gender but by personal passion, talents and interests”.

Sandberg says that: “I have written this book to encourage women to think big”. It’s a book from the heart, and well worth reading. But to truly change the world, maybe we must all think bigger.