Oct. 21st, 2013

Lean In

Oct. 21st, 2013 01:38 pm
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
In summary: if a man had written this book, it would be mansplaining.

Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook and was previously an executive at Google. Lean In is not a memoir. That's too bad, because with a good ghostwriter she could have written a really good memoir. Just getting in on the ground floor at Google and Facebook is a good story. Doing so as an older, non-technical woman shows serious chops. And even if it was a bad story, it's hers, and I can't criticize her telling of her story. But her goal for Lean In was to encourage young women to pursue ambitious careers and give them the tools to do the same. As a late-20s female programmer, this topic is relevant to my interests. But the book just isn't very good at either of those things.

As far as encouragement, she tells women not to be held back by people telling them they can't or shouldn't. But she never actually makes a very strong case for why we should want to in the first place. Sheryl Sandberg's network is estimated at $400,000,000. Those estimates could be off by a factor of 100 and it would still be enough money that no amount of additional money could motivate me to work as hard as she does on anything, ever again. She talks a lot about what she sacrifices with her kids to do her job, and all I wanted to do was ask her what she got out of her job that was worth that sacrifice, because it clearly wasn't the money.

That's not rhetorical, by the way. I think the answer to that question would be really interesting. And yes, I ask it of insanely wealthy men too, even ones who aren't complaining about what their jobs cost them.

Skill wise, I can see a good book going one of two ways: pretend there's no sexism and teach women to act like successful men, and let them deal with the fallout, on the theory that it will equalize eventually, or acknowledge that the same action can be read very differently based on the gender of the actor and give tricks for working around it.* Things that we shouldn't have to do, but will help us in this imperfect world. Sandberg gives two of those, one of which is really quite smart. But mostly she lists ways she wishes the world was different. I say that because she does acknowledge that women are punished for behaviors men are rewarded for, and that their "ineffective" behavior is in part a result of this punishment, but keeps listing all the ways women behave ineffectively. It's not helpful.

For a woman who spends a lot of time lauding feminism and imploring women to help each other, her book is curiously devoid of any feminist work more recent than Betty Friedham. Navigating a workplace that is theoretically open but covertly hobbling you is not a novel topic in feminism. Lots of people have put a lot of thought into this. Are these people COOs of major corporations? No, and that would definitely give Sandberg additional insight. But to completely ignore all the work other women have done on the topic, while discussing how women's contributions tend to be undervalued, is pretty disrespectful.

To be fair, for all my age, gender, and job make me the target market for this book, I'm probably much better read in feminism than she had in mind. As a 101 book , you could do a lot worse. But doing feminism 101 is also not a new topic, and she could have used lessons from feminist writers to make her book better at that too. The book talks about how men often get credit for ideas originally pitched by women, and I think this is a perfect example of how gender is not quite the problem, it's just the stand in for it. Sandberg can't help but get more traction than some random blogger, but like we're always telling men and white people, it's your job to use that platform to shine attention on better thinkers who are being ignored.

*I can't find the name of it now, but one such book said something like "Statistics show that no matter how much supportive noise a man makes when you're dating, he will sacrifice your career for his own. The only real defense is to marry someone with significantly lower earnings potential, so neither of you can afford for you to stop working." It sounds creepy and unromantic and Machiavellian, but I respected the honesty.


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