The Other Side of Leaning In

bravo leanin post - The Other Side of Leaning In

I love Cheryl Sandberg–her incredible presence, her role as adult supervisor to a difficult tech leader, her social commitment and philanthropy, her role as a parent and spouse, and her new book, Lean In. But I also felt a bit uncomfortable when I read it. I liked and shared her positive emphasis on empowering yourself, and her assumption that personal skills help you make your way at work. I teach the same skills and encourage people to use them, and I see many people who diminish themselves and do not stand up for who they are. But I was deeply challenged when I read a recent blog by Susan Faludi, a noted and articulate feminist and progressive, entitled “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” from The Baffler No. 23, 2013.

Faludi is careful not to frame her argument as an attack on Lean In and Sandberg, but she raises some concerns and questions that we as change leaders need to consider carefully. Faludi raises but does not answer these concerns, and I found myself reading her blog several times, and then looking back into my copy of Lean In. Faludi is saying that Sandberg’s approach of personal empowerment is very effective for the educated, comfortable professional class of knowledge workers, but does not really address the structural limits that keep back the women (and men) who work at lower-paid levels of the corporation. She suggests, I think rightly, that a women who was not promoted at a lower level job at Wal-Mart or McDonalds would probably not get a raise using her Lean In skills, but are more likely to get fired. 

Faludi’s basic point is one that I try to deal with in my teaching and my work. From a psychological perspective keeping silent and allowing yourself to not share what you are worth, and what you think, is not good for your mental health, and seems counter-productive for the workplace. A cover article in an October issue of Bloomberg Business documents the authoritarian and mercurial style of Jeff Bezos (another of my flawed heroes) at Amazon, who has a highly ambivalent attitude toward being challenged. The same style characterizes many of the new generation of start-up leaders, most notably Steve Jobs. But personal empowerment is only a micro-tool in a macro-environment, and we must remember that fact as we plow forward with our personal visions, life plans and empowered actions.

Faludi adapts a social structural perspective to talk about how corporations systematically act to protect the powers of those in control, and in the case of lower-wage jobs, can decisively limit the power of women and indeed many of their male peers in the workplace. From Wal-Mart’s point of view, paying less and offering fewer benefits to cut costs is part of their mission to provide the lowest prices to the customer. I don’t know how having all of their middle managers as males helps their strategy, but other companies seem to defend their informal cultures of inequity using company resources, even if challenged by a class-action lawsuit. Faludi says that Sandberg’s movement not only won’t dent this culture, but also may reinforce it. She cites the lack of women in management and engineering at high-tech firms, including Facebook as evidence.

Her critique is a good one, but it is not clear what she believes that young women executives should do. Should they quit and challenge the company, or should they challenge the structural obstacles more strongly? I think Sandberg intends them to work from within, accepting but finding quiet ways to challenge the culture. Meyerson’s study of “tempered radicals” supports this as a viable strategy. The problem is the boundary between self-interest and interest in others. If you ask for a raise or promotion, that is self-interest. If you challenge a supervisor about not listening or promoting other women in your team, that is more altruistic. If you keep quiet about the latter in service of the former, that may be forgetting your social commitment in your own favor. That happens to all of us.

Faludi suggests that this boundary may be an issue in what is now the “Lean In movement.” She carefully and thoughtfully tries to raise this issue with the people who drive this movement, and she encounters a wall of protection; she notes that Sandberg and associates staffed up her movement well before her book was published. She makes very clear that some of the trappings of Sandberg’s effort come across as a sort of celebrity strategy rather than as a product of a real social movement in the traditional sense. She raises the question about whether a Lean In group would support a challenge to a corporation that acted unethically in relation to a member of one of the groups, and gets a non-response from Lean In management. The apparent lack of support for this type of challenge seems to show is that, as a full-time corporate officer for a large and powerful corporation, Sandberg’s role and ability to communicate and share ideas is limited. Or maybe that is her personal preference.

Faludi’s article does what a good critical piece should do—it raises uncomfortable questions that do not have easy answers, and puts a public issue (and public figure) to account. I keep thinking about the questions she provokes and I find it difficult to reconcile my admiration for what Sandberg is doing with the valid challenge to the overreaching power and lack of compassion in large corporations.

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

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