Lean in, tip over: Thoughts on Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg

by Susan Getgood on February 27, 2013 · 6 comments

in Feminism, Politics

Over the past week, I’ve been chatting with a number of my Facebook friends about what many are calling the most recent salvos at the good ship Working Mother. Specifically Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent edict  requiring Yahoo! employees to work in a Yahoo! office, effectively rescinding flexible working arrangements and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book (and philosophy),  Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. 

There’s no shortage of opinions about these endeavors, many of which call both women to task for ignoring the daily realities facing most working women in this country. True enough. I agree.

When viewed through a feminist lens, it’s hard to miss that Mayer’s edict about flextime is bound to have the most impact on working mothers and two-income families,  traditionally the chief beneficiaries of flexible working arrangements. And when it comes to Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy, while I will refrain from extensive commentary until I have read the book, so far it reminds me of “why can’t a woman be more like a man,” but with less singing and no Rex Harrison.

A chief criticism of both women is that they operate from positions of privilege and are insulated from the realities facing the working population that can’t afford nannies and housekeepers while we go to the office every day and lean all the way in.

True enough perhaps, but that’s not my only criticism of both the Yahoo! policy shift and the Lean In philosophy. I don’t care that these two women have more money and household support. The argument that they are out of touch is the easy one. We cannot lay the entire burden of the deeper social issues at their doors. Mayer and Sandberg are just as much as product of our societal psychosis when it comes to women in the workplace as the rest of us, so let’s not demonize them. Too much anyway :-)

Yes. It is sad that these two extremely successful women are so out of touch,  and it truly concerns me that the younger generation has begun to reject the mantle of  ”feminism,” virtually ignoring the corporate ladders that previous generations scrabbled up against impossible odds.

But I’m a realist.

I’d like to see successful women like them  ”pull up” as well as “lean in.”  It is something I have always tried to do in my own career, and when I rejoined the corporate workforce after a 6 year stint as an independent consultant, I chose BlogHer, a woman-led organization that values both work and family.

But I don’t expect it. Sadly, our society rewards the traditional “masculine” values and denigrates the “feminine” ones.  Until we change our social values at a fundamental level, there will always be Queen Bees. And finance will trump family.

So I am going to set aside the “rich women out of touch” argument, and get right to my deeper issues with Mayer’s Yahoo! edict and Sandberg’s Lean In platform.

Let’s take them in turn.

First the Yahoo! shift. As I’ve commented elsewhere, I understand the argument that the change was a business decision that will impact both men and women employees, and was driven by a need to effect immediate and deep change in the Yahoo! culture to turn things around. Mayer has a productivity problem. We get it.

Unfortunately,  the way the policy change was framed  – that people are more productive face to face — flies in the face of data that supports flexible working arrangements, ignores the reality of the modern tech workplace and is fundamentally dishonest. (Snarky aside: Not that I advocate this, but many companies outsource their tech support to India. Where’s the face to face in that?)

Bottom line, and I am sure Mayer respects the bottom line, put on the big girl panties and acknowledge that Yahoo! has a problem.  Working from home or allowing flexible working arrangements doesn’t have to be — shouldn’t be in this connected era — an issue. If it is in YOUR company, suck it up and handle it. Don’t cast aspersions on the model just cause it ain’t workin’ for you. Tell the truth. Do you really think the market doesn’t know?

And by the way, and for what it’s worth, I totally buy into the need for facetime. When I took the job at BlogHer, I relocated to be within commuting distance of our NY Office. But I report there three days a week and work from home two, because I can be more productive on certain projects on my WFH days while also being a little more available to my family.

Next, the whole “Lean In” philosophy. I’m mostly flabbergasted. I am trying – really trying – to refrain from too much commentary before I have read the book . On its face though… REALLY?   I have to tell you, there were times in my corporate career that I leaned so far in I thought I would tip over.

That the onus is always on women to prove themselves irritates me. Deeply. And see above, probably leads to half-assed decrees like the Yahoo! one.

Here’s the thing. Business as structured in these United States values ROI, the bottom line and a whole host of business metrics that matter. They do. They matter.

Just not more than people. And that’s the problem with Lean In and business in general, I suppose.

People matter. And when one woman corporate executive leans in, she probably does it on someone’s back. A partner. A family member. A  nanny. A housekeeper.

Lean in baby, but remember — you are leaning on someone too.

And it cannot, must not be about women doing more, giving more, just to be on par. That’s crap from the get-go.

What we really need is equality.

In the workplace, so we earn the same wage.

And at home, so Dad is just as revered as Mom, and not just in June. Because — guess what — I’d give up the easy laughs if we could close the wage gap.

Balance and equality are I suspect what Sandberg’s model is missing. But as I said, I reserve judgment until I have read the book.

Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

Because.

Just.  Because.

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