This week I read Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg's influential and controversial 2013 book subtitled "Women, Work, and the Will to Lead."
I'd been wondering if I should blog about it, assuming that my insoluble maleness disqualified me from the right (or perceived right) to comment. So I was casting about for less loaded topics, all the while wanting to write about this one.
Then, on pg. 149, Sandberg recounts a time in which a male executive utilized Sandberg's TED Talk as evidence that women sometimes hold themselves back. Sandberg notes, "If a man had delievered the same message or even gently pointed out that women might be taking actions that limited their options, he would have been pilloried."
Aha, that's what I was worried about! Reading that sentence emboldened me to craft this post.
Sandberg's arguement is that women are caught in a double bind, in which professional success comes at the cost of their likeability at work and their connections with their children and partners. Since women are much more likely than men to work the "second shift" at home as well as their full time jobs, they are caught between competing and impossible imperatives.
Because of their concern about likeability at work, women are less likely to compete for stretch assignments than men. They end up holding back rather than leaning in.
As a manager in libraries almost all of my direct reports have been women. I've observed this holding back in many meetings over many years. On countless occasions people would claim that they will "defer to the will of the group," even though no such will was readily apparent. So then I--the lone man, usually---would try to marshal a consensus, while worrying that I was re-enacting a gender dynamic that was supposedly passe.
I did have a few male direct reports, who would boldly champion their ideas. Sometimes those ideas were good, sometimes they were not. But they were certainly well asserted. I found--on the whole--that I had to rein in the men and encourage the women. Sandberg's numerous anecdotes square very well with my experience.
Is this nature, nurture, or both? (And does the root cause even matter?) Recently Slate has posted some studies by Kieran Synder, demonstrating that men in tech interrupt more than women, and that boys on the playground interrupt more than girls.
Looks like it starts young. When I was a boy being called a girl was an intense playground slur. I thought this was lame, which is why I spoke about independent films with my art teacher (a woman) rather than running around the playground with those sexist boys. I supposed I could have leaned in to more boldly protest their misogyny, but at least I quietly opted out.
For it seemed to me that being a girl had a lot to offer. Boys grew up to go to war, or to die in motorcycle crashes because they refused to wear helmets. Men die earlier than women, although the gap has narrowed. And when a woman dies first her male partner often perishes soon after, a pattern not observed the other way around. Men commit suicide much more than women. Men chomp cigars and belch loudly. This was maleness as I perceived it all those years ago.
In college I learned that men who perform a discrete action, like rescuing people from a burning building, are properly honored. But the caretakers who then tend to the wounded over a period of months or years, who are usually women, receive little or no acknowledgment. The "male way" is flashy and flamboyant, demanding attention. The "female way" is subdued and understated, just getting the job done. I valued the second way more even as I exhibited evidence of the first.
Of course, in most work environments the "male way" is valued. So Sandberg's advice to women is on point. But we cannot forget the larger point. We should build a world in which "masculine" and "feminine" traits--whether they are exhibited by men or women, and in whatever proportion they do so--are equally valued.