Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lean In: Stay and Sit at the Table

When my best friend gave me "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg for Christmas I didn't race home to read it.  I actually avoided it for a whole month by preoccupying my reading time with fast paced memoirs and sappy romance YA novels.  I heard of Sandberg's book, but reading the diatribe of Facebook's COO with a bunch of business talk and women empowerment stuff just didn't resonate with me.

In the last year much has changed in my life.  I removed myself from the manic pace of work and traded my 15 year career as an English teacher for a more gentle approach to life that centers around my family, writing, reading, running our on-line writing community Stageoflife.com, and yoga.  I no longer feel tied to or pressured by a schedule.  I have time to not only look at my children and get them to their activities, but I am engaged in their lives now.  I see them in the morning when they are at their best.  I see them in the afternoon when they are at their worst.  I see them after dinner when they just want to play and be silly.  I am present in not only their lives but my own.  So . . . let's just say, I wasn't interested in reading a book that encourages me to go back to a manic pace of life or even step up the pace more frenetically by joining the competitive business world.

After I read through the stack I placed on top of Sandberg's smiling face to keep her from staring me down at night and making me feel guilty for not even attempting to read my best friend's well thought out Christmas present, I finally relented last week.  At first my overwhelming emotion while reading was contempt.  Why though should I feel contempt for Sandberg's mostly gentle and thoroughly researched study of how women exclude themselves from leadership positions?  She doesn't finger wag or even place judgements.  She doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but simply wants to start a conversation stemming from some alarming statistics in relation to women leaders and women in the workforce like "the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the past decade.  A meager twenty-one of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.  Women hold about 14 percent of executive officer positions, 17 percept of board seats, and constitute 18 percent of elected congressional officials." But it doesn't end there.  Even from Sandberg's personal experience she brings up important points about maternity leaves (women leaving before they actually leave work), women being reluctant to join in discussions at the board meeting (she urges women to sit at the table), women not being liked when they achieve powerful status in the workplace (gender discount theory), and discrepancies of how much more work women do in terms of childcare (three times more) and housework (two times more) in relation to their partners (on this point, Sandberg makes a plea for women to make their partners real partners in all areas).

The whole time I read "Lean In," I asked myself, "Do you like this book?" and I couldn't really answer my own question.  I learned while reading it.  I reopened my questions about why women choose what they choose.  I faced my own choices of the last decade since I became a mother and struggled with balancing work and being a mom, maternity leave and going back to work, and trying to find a balance of power in my own household.  I remembered my fire and intensity in high school and college always wanting to be the leader of organizations and planning my future of successes and accolades.  And I wondered where did my ambition go?  Why did I lean out so far away from the work force, and instead create my own safe haven where my creativity can flow at my own pace? Why do women choose what they choose?

It wasn't until I watched Sandberg's TEDTalk that I truly appreciated her message.  I may not have been dazzled by her writing style, but when she speaks, I want to listen.  Her TEDTalk showed me why she has garnered such success in her life from Washington D.C. to Silicone Valley.  She reflects calmly, but carries a weighty and important message about the future of women and men in our country.

Her final thought in her TEDTalk is the same as in her book, and when I read it (and listened to her say it) I truly appreciated Sandberg for starting the conversation and being an activist for choice and change.  She said:
"My greatest hope is that my son and my daughter will be able to choose what to do with their lives without external or internal obstacles slowing them down or making them question their choices.  If my son wants to do the important work of raising a child full-time, I hope he is respected and supported.  And if my daughter wants to work full-time outside her home, I hope she is not just respected and supported, but also liked for her achievements."

With two daughters of my own, I hope they can choose whatever they want to do with their lives and that they can dream big without reality and lopsided statistics weighing them down.  I want them to be able to lean in or jump in wherever they want to be knowing that they can do whatever they want to do, and that it isn't just a nice thought coming from their mom, but the truth of the world where they live.

I think this book will be one that people talk about much the way women today talk about Gloria Steinem and her fight for women's equality, and Betty Friedan and her book "The Feminine Mystique."  And although I leaned out (way out) and was happy and relieved to do so, I hope this book gives more power to the women who want to lean in . . . all the way.

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