Recently, this column by Rosa Brooks at Foreign Policy popped up in my Facebook News Feed. Brooks exhorts women to “recline” in supposed opposition to the arguments put Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In.
Coincidentally, I just finished reading Lean In. I was not drawn to the book when it was first published, given the hand-wringing and navel-gazing it inspired, and also—especially—given that women who aren’t upper-class and white were basically ignored in discussions of it. I finally gave in and checked out a copy from my library after noting that the book is still reliably name-checked in any discussion or article regarding women and careers.
So, upon reading Brooks’s column, my first thought was: Did this lady actually read the book? Brooks blames Sandberg for inspiring her to overwork in both her professional and personal lives:
I leaned in some more. I ate protein bars and made important telephone calls during my morning commute. I stopped reading novels so I could write more articles and memos and make more handicrafts to contribute to the school auction. I put in extra hours at work. When I came home, I did radio interviews over Skype from my living room while supervising the children’s math homework.
And I realized that I hated Sheryl Sandberg.
This, however, is not the vision of “leaning in” that Sandberg presents in her book. (After all, one highly publicized detail regarding Sandberg is that she leaves the office by 5:30 pm.) In Lean In, she makes it clear that pursuing greater responsibility and authority requires tradeoffs, and some career opportunities may not be a good fit for one’s personal life at a given moment. For instance, Sandberg writes of her decision to turn down Reid Hoffman’s offer to become CEO of LinkedIn because of her status as a new mother. She makes it clear that women should not expect to be both Supermom and Superexec. (Not to mention, of course, that both of these are gross caricatures in the first place.)
Brooks betrays her inattentiveness to Sandberg’s arguments in Lean In later in her column, when she discusses the burden of the “second shift”:
And just as work has expanded to require employees’ round-the-clock attention, being a good mom has also started requiring ubiquity. Things were different in my own childhood, but today, parenting has become a full-time job: it requires attendance at an unending stream of birthday parties, school meetings, class performances, and soccer games, along with the procurement of tutors, classes, and enrichment activities, the arranging of play dates, the making of organic lunches, and the supervising of elaborate, labor-intensive homework projects than cannot be completed without extensive adult supervision.
It’s hard enough managing one 24/7 job. No one can survive two of them. And as long as women are the ones doing more of the housework and childcare, women will be disproportionately hurt when both workplace expectations and parenting expectations require ubiquity.
Sandberg actually makes similar arguments in Lean In: she observes that the unequal division of household labor between men and women—which she cites research to verify—hampers women’s success both at work and at home. In fact, she devotes to this issue an entire chapter, at the end of which she argues that “we need more men at the table…the kitchen table.” Later in the book, Sandberg discusses the tradeoffs she makes as a parent: while she is engaged in her children’s daily activities, she is not the mom who knows all her children’s classmates’ names and birthdays by heart. Although she admits feeling guilty about this at times, she accepts that she cannot be Supermom.
As I mentioned before, I have some issues with Lean In. It has been suggested—compellingly so in an essay by Kate Losse—that Sandberg’s book represents a corporatized feminism that lets businesses off the hook for their role in stunting women’s careers. (I don’t agree with several points in Losse’s piece, but I think the overall criticism is valid.) Also, Sandberg acknowledges that her book isn’t meant for every woman, but in her recommendations of what women should do to strengthen their (white-collar) careers, she doesn’t make any considerations of how these recommendations may not work for certain groups of women—and in fact may undermine them. One example is the notion that showing emotion at work is a good thing for women; it may well not be for women of color, however.
That said, I have an even greater issue with columns such as Brooks’s, which set up straw men to attack others’ arguments. Doing so draws attention away from obvious holes in those arguments. I also find it curious that Brooks is choosing to attack Lean In now, nearly a year after its publication. (Did Foreign Policy miss the initial round of Lean In–bashing but decide “better late than never”?) Without the straw-man arguments, the column is a sensible critique of work culture in foreign policy and national security:
The general American tendency to think that “more time at work” equals “better work” is exacerbated by the All Crisis All the Time culture of foreign policy. Global crisis never sleeps, and neither do the overworked staffers at the Pentagon, the State Department, or the White House. It’s little wonder that many of the gifted young female staffers who enter these workplaces hit a wall at some point, and come to the painful realization that work and family obligations aren’t always things you can simply “balance.” Often, these weights become too heavy. They can crush you.
Unfortunately, this cogent critique is bookended by relentless hacking of straw men.