Leaning In and Its Discontents, Part II

Yesterday, I talked about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, focusing on some elements I found depressing—mainly the relentless exhortation to, basically, work all the time if you want to succeed. (I have to say that I am not putting down work; I am myself very hard-working and organized. So, I feel the need to mention that I have the very focus and organization she is talking about.) But I think the work, work, work ethic here is ultimately not a desirable or sustainable lifestyle, and I worry that, because of that, the model of high achievement for women is going to explode in the future. Or come crashing down.

So, what I want to focus on today, is that fear. What scares me is this: are children being brought up by leaning-in parents—told not to scratch lice because their parents have to review notes for a meeting and don’t have time to look up from their iPads, or told to sleep in their clothes so the family can get out the door 15 minutes earlier—likely to repudiate the feminism of their mothers simply because events in their own childhoods were unpleasant and they don’t want to repeat them in their adult lives?

Will the children of lean in be a- or anti-feminist because they equate feminism with a (as it might be seen then) antiquated work-all-the-time-and-be-in-the-C-suite mode that they see as old-hat, unworkable, and thus slightly ridiculous?

This is the analogy I have in mind: children raised in communes of the 1960s and early 1970s. Some of them, when they became adults, wrote memoirs of the experience in which they said that, far from liking the wheat grass served there, they just pined for mac and cheese or a bologna sandwich.

Communes and have-it-all feminism very different, you say? Well, both are examples of movements that 1) had an au courant moment, 2) stood for certain things once outside mainstream culture (vegetarianism, say, for communes; larger scope and voice for women, for feminism). Then, both 3) saw some elements largely adopted by the larger culture (soy milk and organic food in your local grocery and high-level education and careers for women). Finally, 4) in the case of communes, they were ultimately pretty much abandoned. They returned to the margins.

Sandberg herself apparently bought into the idea that second-wave feminism was old hat at one point. She mentions that the actual Gloria Steinem is “the absolute opposite of my childish image of the humorless feminist” by being “funny and warm.” So stereotypes already lurk among women that—had the second (and third and fourth) waves been less massive—might have silenced feminism not only as a movement to be avowed or disavowed, but as a concept. It is not entirely impossible that in a generation or two the idea of more scope and ability for women might become an unfashionable idea. And the fashionable model be one in which women only have the domestic sphere.

It has happened before.

Some examples? Students in the mid twentieth century were routinely taught that most writers were men. The big book on American literature through the 1950s and 1960s was arguably F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. It only discusses men—with an underlying assumption that all artists of fine quality will be male. Part of second wave feminism (and later) was discovering the multitude of women writers in this period who had literally been written out of history.

Along with being fascinated with how much the twenty-first century replicates the nineteenth, I am fascinated with the vanishing process. How does this stuff get written out of history?

One reason might be the association with particular trends that follow not simply the content of the idea, but its fashionability. The first and second wave were tagged (unfortunately) in the public mind with shorthand versions that did a disservice to the many fronts on which feminist issues were fought. The first wave (nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), all about the vote. Women striking for the vote, the suffragettes, later became an unfashionable model for younger women. The second wave, about more education, power, and careers for women, became tagged with humorlessness or needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle (if you believe the young Sandberg). And younger women in turn repudiated those images.

More importantly, perhaps, mainstream culture simply adopted central tenets of both waves. Think of someone seriously arguing against the major victories of the first wave, for example: that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, or that women should not be allowed to pursue college degrees. It doesn’t happen, because those values have become fully assimilated in middle-class life.

What mainstream culture does not adopt becomes associated with the fringe, and it returns back to the margins.

So on the level of fashionability, there is a troubling pattern of generational disavowal about earlier models of feminism. And the possibility of that generational disavowal developing in the future because of examples in books like Sandberg’s haunts me.




Leaning In and Its Discontents, Part I

A few weeks ago, in the process of writing on the case of Philosopher W, who tried to negotiate an academic job offer but gave no context for why her organization should have given her the goodies she sought, I mentioned Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a book of the cultural moment exhorting women to take charge of their work lives.

At the time, I was responding more to the existence of this book than what it said. However, in the interest of assaying the cultural moment, I read it recently. On one level, it is fairly standard advice: be aggressive in your work life, put your energy fully behind it, and have a robust family life as well, in which you share the parenting role. You can have it all. Corporations and partners should be sensitive to the needs of working women. We (women) have come far, but not far enough. It is a current reiteration of advice that has been given throughout several decades now, with a bit more emphasis on shared parenting than others; but seeing itself as new is one of the tropes of books like these. Lean in

The book is a curious mixture. On one level, especially in a middle section where she discusses why women are still reluctant to take credit for their achievements, it pinpoints areas that need discussion (which I will talk about in another post). On another level, though, it’s kind of dispiriting, and I want to first say why.

In parts of the book, Lean In talks a great deal about the integration of family and work, having children and a corporate life. (Sandberg’s prime area of example is her own life; she was a highly placed executive at Google and is now the chief operating officer at Facebook.) She gives an example of hearing another woman executive proudly boast that, to ensure maximum efficiency in the getting-ready-to-go-to-work-and-school routine, she has her children sleep in their school clothes. That way, see, they are already ready when they arise in the morning. Thus saving the mother’s time (15 minutes) in getting them dressed. Maximized efficiency, like a good MBA.

And then Sandberg says that, while she thought the mother was overdoing it when she first heard the anecdote, once she had children and realized how hard it was to integrate a high-powered career and child care, she thought the woman was a genius. That is a direct quote, page 124: a genius.

It strikes me as distinctly troubling, both as related anecdote and as an action receiving the kudo of “genius.” Child reading has many aspects and sure, management of time is one. But what about simple provision of care? I think the behavior described, in any other caregiver situation, would be seen for what it is: a form of abuse. Think of the response to a live-in nanny, for example, forcing children to sleep in their clothes so her time preparing her charges could be minimized. Or the reaction to a home health nurse or aide, forcing patients to sleep in their clothes at night so that they were already ready for breakfast and the day. A caregiver in an assisted living environment, ditto—are you kidding? They would be disciplined for poor behavior.

I understand that in the terms of the book, she is attempting to dramatize how difficult the integration of child care and work can be, and illustrating the lengths to which some people go. Another, related example is her own response to incipient head lice in her children’s hair. First, she makes them stop itching their heads. Second, realizing there is something seriously wrong (after disciplining the behavior), she shampoos nits out of their hair all night before an important conference. (Third, she worries that other passengers—on a private EBay plane—will have picked up nits and will trace it back to her.) Making children sleep in their clothes is not intended as serious advice. It is intended to underscore maternal desperation and how important it is to share childcare. I get it.

But I’m not sure that she gets the import of sharing such an example approvingly (even if acknowledging it’s on an extreme end), or terming it a genius move. Lean In is of the cultural moment precisely because it has been a bestseller in places like the New York Times and Amazon, and has inspired circles (reading groups) at places like Harvard Business School. It affects the cultural conversation as a result. Moreover, because she has recently authored a sort-of sequel for college students (Lean In for Graduates), it is likely to affect the conversation at colleges as well. I’m far from sure, however, that the large reading public for this book is being helped in work, life, or ultimately, in the overall project of women and empowerment by the implied role model available.

The most sinister thing about the anecdote, I think, is the metaphor it creates. Making children sleep in their clothes takes away—renders illegitimate—the dreaming, dawdling, private time of bed, sleep, and early morning. If school or preschool can be understood as the “job” of children—what they do in the day, in the world outside the home, tasks that they complete for mastery, the analogue of their parents’ employment—the example given makes them always already workers.

It mirrors, of course, the whittling away of private time that the adult workforce has gone through in the past several decades. It is not uncommon for employees to be routinely expected to check e-mail in the evenings and weekends. At points in the book, Sandberg proudly announces her own demarcation of work and private time: dinner with children at 5:30. But she then happily trumpets that she resumes work after her children are in bed. Under this model, adults too are always already workers. It’s just that some restricted islands exist (like child-rearing) on which they are off-line for a while. So the ideal lean-in employee basically leans in all the time, except when doing things with children. Which is also a kind of job.

So the first dispiriting thing about this book is the relentless workaholism of it, and the implicit exhortation that everyone who values work and wants to be successful embrace what is essentially a culture of work all the time.

It strikes me as notable that discussion of the need for private time that is just private, or just time spent thinking, or just time spent in non-work tasks, is curiously off the table as a need in books like this. The “work all the time” ethos is being presented to us as a model. But is it good? It is realistic? Is it workable? How about reading? Listening to music? …Wood-working? The stuff of everyday life goes on—we all know that we read and watch television and do other stuff, or most of us do—but it simply doesn’t exist in a book purporting to tell us how to be high-powered and integrate personal life and work.

One of the enduring fascinations of contemporary life, to me, is how much certain aspects of the culture of the twenty-first century mirrors that of the nineteenth, for all that evocations of the newness of the new are common. Sometimes the new is very old. The mom shaving 15 minutes off her time is a form of Taylorism, the nineteenth-century factory production method that timed employees to see how much could be accomplished in a given sequence of actions. So, Lean In, under a guise of friendliness, family-centeredness, and charm, comes very close to telling us to be as regimented as any factory worker of the nineteenth century, but this time not through the compulsion of tasks on a factory floor, but out of our desire to work and lead.