It’s a little over a week ago now, that I first heard about this new book ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg. It was my mom who mentioned it to me in the middle of one of our weeknight phone calls. She’d caught an interview with the author on some morning show, and told me that I should find it online and watch it. For a second I wondered why. Sure, it’s a book about women in the workplace, gender inequality and the need for us [women] to push ourselves a little harder, or lean in a little closer, to get that place in front, or at the top, that we deserve. I get it. But it’s written by the COO of Facebook—a woman with two degrees from Harvard. My mother is fully aware that I’m nowhere near even standing next to the ladder, let alone trying to climb it, and that I have no ambitions of the high-powered executive ilk.
Maybe it was just her being a good mom, wanting the best for me; wanting me to be successful, and able to take care of myself, and achieve whatever goals or life dreams I set down when I got out of college. Who knows, maybe there’s some unfulfilled career dream that she had, that I never knew about. Whatever the case, I said ok, and found a segment that had aired on NPR and pushed play. Immediately, I was aligned with Sandberg, and in days that followed, in reading reviews both for and against her advice and her mission, even having not yet read the book, I agreed with her. Regardless of what kind of work I do now or ever will do, I feel very strongly that these hurdles we women face are ours to confront head on if we want to see change.
Growing up in a house full of girls with a father who didn’t want to raise little prisses, it was hard not to end up a feminist. So, like my sisters, I have feminist blood coursing through my veins, empowering me with the die-hard belief that I can do anything the boys can do. Ok, obviously not anything, but you get my point. I can do anything boys can do—and some things I can even do better.
What’s sort of backwards in all of this, for me personally, is that as much as I believe in leaning in, fighting the fight, at the same time, I think I might very easily be able to throw my hands up and say “Forget it.” The cover story in this week’s New York magazine is entitled, ‘The Feminist Housewife’. I read the article yesterday over lunch. It talks about the growing trend of stay-at-home mommyhood and how many young (and some not so young) women in today’s society actually don’t want to lean in to their careers—not because they’re wimping out, but because they want to be mothers, want to give their blood, sweat and tears to the job of taking care of their families. I have forever imagined having a family; but I’ve also always imagined working. I enjoy being part of the team setting, the regular interaction with intelligent, articulate, witty adult peers, the chit-chats and inside jokes and collaborating on projects and going for post workday beers. I have to say however, the article did make the housewife-mommy lifestyle sound very appealing, and by the end of it, I was kind of wanting it for myself.
But, let’s get back to reality. I’m a single, 36-year-old woman in New York City with not even a prospect for a husband on the horizon. So, as I wait for the housewife-mommy lifestyle to meet up with me some day (hopefully), I have to work.
This brings me back to a conversation I had over dinner last weekend with my cousin’s seven-year-old son Jack. He asked me at one point, “Andrea, what’s your career?” There is nothing quite like being put on the spot by a seven-year-old, let me tell you. I took a swig of wine, cleared my throat and replied frankly (because I was really answering the whole table of people staring at me and not just him). “I don’t really have a career,” I said. “It’s more of a…job.” Of course I wondered: at seven, do you even know the difference? “Well then what’s your job?” he asked back immediately. I stared into his brown marble eyes wishing the telephone would ring or that someone would swallow something down a wrong pipe and fall into a fit of coughing, but alas, no luck. So I started on about how I manage an office, and am the assistant to the boss, and that I take care of him to make sure his day runs smoothly. Of course I wasn’t feeling so proud but, whatever, it’s a job and I do it well. And Jack replies (and here I almost choked): “So you basically make sure his desk is clean?”
Well thanks to my mother, who was in town visiting and sitting next to me, the conversation was smoothed out and in the end, I was still breathing and Jack was at least somewhat satisfied with the work I do, however different or less it is than what he expected. Thinking back on the whole exchange, that initial question of why my mother felt so strongly about me needing to hear Sheryl Sandberg’s interview comes to mind—the question of how leaning in applies to me. I actually can quite easily see the answer. I think the basic principles Ms. Sandberg discusses can be applied to any of us in any environment if what we want is to be recognized for the work we do, and rewarded or compensated as we see fit.
So my job is not work that I am wholeheartedly fulfilled by, but this is by choice. I made the decision to veer away from what I thought years ago would be my career, because I fell out of love with it and found it eating up my life. A job, on the other hand, allows me to pursue the longtime love I never before focused on, which is writing. Granted, it means writing in my spare time, but I’ll take what I can get. Earlier this month, the website VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) published their ‘2012 Count’ which takes a look at the numbers of women versus men in various segments of the literary world. Without having to study their charts with much scrutiny, it’s quite clear, the dismal disparity that exists and subsequently, the message that success in the literary world is no easier to achieve than success in the corporate world…if you’re a woman. My dream may not be to have the corner office, or be the highest paid executive, but yeah, I’d love to be a successful and respected writer one day. So is the idea of leaning in, for me, really backwards at all? I think not.
The bottom line is that we all deserve to have what we want in life. I don’t think anyone is saying success in the corporate world is any greater than a happy, healthy, well-cared-for home, or that it makes you any better a woman. And I don’t think, despite what a lot of the critics have said, that Sheryl Sandberg’s advice can’t apply to all of us. She’s coming to us with first hand experience. She knows the challenges that come with being a woman. She’s definitely on our side in this. I remember being a little girl, afraid to put my hand up in a classroom full of boys but being free and speaking up at Brownies. Sadly, I know that that insecurity, despite believing I can do anything boys can do, has stayed with me to some extent. I hope one day we see change. And in the meantime, to Sheryl Sandberg (and to my mother)—thanks for the push… to lean in.