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Lean Sideways or Up, and then Down

Sheryl Sandberg has become internationally famous in 2013 (and even more fabulously wealthy than she was before) by publishing her bestselling book, Lean In. Corporate women everywhere are now encouraged to perambulate on a perpetual forward pitch, which adds even more difficulty to the challenge of wearing pumps every day.  One is tempted to accessorize with a rescue helicopter dangling a safety wire.

Awesomely, this is from:
On the one hand, I love that we are talking about equality for women again
  • It isn't as though we really succeeded completely before we gave up on Second Wave Feminism, even from a legal perspective. Seriously, the US wouldn't pass the Equal Rights Amendment?  What (medieval) century do we live in here?
  • And clearly, we are even further behind culturally than legally, when we see that women in the US can be making 80 cents to men's dollar in wages for the same job, on average, without laws being violated. 
  • And 20 years after 50% of the annual US college degrees began to go to women, only 8% of corporate executives are women.  It seems as though something is still wrong here.
So huzzah to Sheryl Sandberg for ushering in Wave Three Feminism! (or Wave Four, if indeed, as alleged by Wikipedia and others, there has been a Wave Three I have missed, somehow).  We are women, hear us roar.

On the other hand, I worry that most of Sandberg's advice is counter-productive for all but a small, select, group of her large reader base.  Her book seems just right for top executives like herself, looking to go still higher.  But many people who are discussing Sandberg over lasagne at their book club even as we speak are people who graduated from college with high hopes in the 1980s, but who have now been stuck for a decade or two (or three), crawling slowly up through the ranks in middle management positions. For us, the research shows, "leaning in" aggressively is not really going to help very much.

Think for a moment.  Sandberg posits that we women are exacerbating our cultural disadvantages by being insufficiently pushy and tenacious. She says we need to:
  • get our partners to shoulder their share of the housework and childcare, 
  • take our seat at the executive table, and 
  • "not leave until we leave," which is to say, aggressively take on showy new challenges right up until we go into labor.
To whom does this list apply?  Women:
  • Young enough to be concerned about housework and small children, but old enough to be thinking about joining their company's upper echalons of executive management.
  • Executive enough to be taking on showy challenges, but still taking home a low enough salary that housework and childcare could only be done by nuclear family members, not hired housekeepers or nannies.
  • Pushy enough to plop themselves at the executive table, but still appealing enough not to be kicked right back to the (large number of) middle management table(s), along with the other thousands of men and women who would like to crash the executive conversation.
If there is an appropriate audience for this book, and you disregard the red herrings about being young and worrying mostly about childcare and housework, the target demographic is composed people who are already executives, and who are looking to move up and become C-level executives or corporate board members.  And I'm glad Sandberg has written this book for this market.  Women at the C-level and on corporate boards are the least well represented of all.

For the rest of us, however, I recommend a 2011 Catalyst Report entitled "The Myth of the Ideal Worker:  Does Doing All The Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?"  Catalyst has been working on a longitudinal study of women's careers for more than a decade now, and they issue reports annually with new findings.  This particular report shows that women who assert themselves don't actually do better.  Findings revealed that:
  • Men benefited more from adopting proactive strategies.
  • When women did all the things they have been told will help them get ahead—using the same tactics as men—they still advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.
As the report authors, Christine Silva and Nancy Carter, suggest in their follow-up article in the Harvard Business Review , here's what makes the difference:
What does work best for women? Among the career advancement tactics we studied, one stood out as having greatest impact. The women who did more to make their achievements known advanced further, were more satisfied with their careers, and had greater compensation growth. (A second strategy was also effective: Women advanced further when they proactively networked with influential others.)
In other words, don't lean in--lean out!  Make your accomplishments known to your boss, your mentor, your sponsor, and your whole network.  Agitate for a culture where metrics are public, and actual performance is rewarded at the end of the year, rather than golf course schmoozing.  Have a network, and create reciprocal relationships of mutual "amplification."  Create a buzz around yourself which is about what you've done, not who you are.  And amplify the achievements of your friends, so they can advance too.

Along the same lines, find someone who will do more than "mentor" you.  You don't mostly need moral support and a shoulder to cry on.  You need a cranky over-achiever who will push you to do better, and advocate you for the big, gnarly jobs at your company that move you ahead.  You need a "sponsor."  You need a top-level executive, man or woman, who will reach down and pull you up (most likely in a way which is painful to you at the time). And you need to do the same for women in your network who want to come to your level.

Which brings us back to Lean In, and its implied "can do" philosophy, based on one talented woman's singular experience.  How can the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world best help women?  And if we are all as powerful as Sheryl, in our own way, what should we be doing?

Let me put it this way.  How many of us felt a rush of excited sympathy for Sandberg herself, as we read about how she got the head of her company to create maternity parking spaces when she, herself, was heavily pregnant?  Or for Marissa Meyer, who took on the CEO position at Yahoo six weeks short of giving birth, and then returned to work two weeks afterwards, so she could be more efficient and quick about her ban on everyone else from working at home?  That was hardly a big step forward for women, if we are going to define "woman friendly" as "supporting work-life balance."

I want to reach out to Sheryl and Marissa, as I call them, and ask them to sponsor me, or someone like me, and put me out there to do a crazy-difficult project with a high risk of public failure and embarassment.  I'm not as excited to have them further push their model of what they think they did differently.  Seriously, as women executives, are these our role models?  Or is this the kind of help for women, in the words of Shel Silverstein, "we all can do without"?



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