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.

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