The Common Good

On Leaning In

Well, somebody had to do it: Somebody had to go buy the incessantly hyped volume Lean In by the stratospherically successful Facebook COO (and mother of two) Sheryl Sandberg, and figure out what’s behind the seemingly endless radio talk shows and online profiles — they have been following me, they have, filling up my car like clouds of incense and dinging on my phone with the book’s mantra-like subtitle, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Sheryl Sandberg, speaking at the World Economic Forum, via World Economic Forum
Sheryl Sandberg, speaking at the World Economic Forum, via World Economic Forum / Flickr.

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I bought this part-memoir, part self-help book on a gorgeous spring weekday when, because I work part-time, I was supposed to be home anyway. Because the pollen was getting to me and I had woken up groggy, my husband generously offered to take the children to school on his way in to work, something that Sandberg would applaud: husbands who will assume major leadership at home are a major key in enabling mothers to succeed.

I stumbled around the house in my nightgown for a while, then finally got dressed and picked up Lean In at the Target in suburban Largo, Md., which at 10 on a weekday morning, was as silent as a tomb.

I drove half an hour to have lunch with a homeschooling friend, folded laundry and cleaned some grout, picked up my children from school and finally settled down to read the book on the bench at my son’s baseball practice, as the evening sun sank over the trees.

I found myself surprised by how much I enjoyed it: Sandberg, who’s about my age and who shares some of my generational preoccupations, comes across as warm and intimate, gently self-deprecating in describing her own “monkey bar” career path (it’s not a ladder, she says, because you can move sideways too), as well as some of her mistakes.

I happen as well to “work outside the home,” as my mother would say, and I could ruefully relate to many of the problems that Sandberg described about women in the work world: I am not a risk-taker. I have a strong work ethic but insufficient self-confidence. I can’t begin to tell you the ways in which my Southern accent has led complete strangers to assume my complete stupidity. I appreciated Sandberg’s prompting to “sit at the main table” and “speak up during meetings.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the book is written in the flat prose of a corporate trainer, or a guest on Oprah: “When we recognize that we can see things only from our own perspective, we can share our views in a nonthreatening way. Statements of opinion are always more constructive in the first person ‘I’ form,” she observes in a chapter called “Seek and Speak Your Truth.”

I have to admit my own fundamental distaste for the kind of “elite problem-solver” transnational policymaker role that Sandberg holds out as the goal for educated women, something writer Judith Shulevitz referred to in a recent New Republic article as “the folly of Davos-style feminism.”

Sandberg mentions that she was raised to believe in social justice and to seek to change the world, but creating shareholder value and developing creative applications of social media seem like such paltry — and yet self-congratulatory, because it was successful and monetized — efforts to do so.

This is a bug-a-boo of mine, I know: I went to school with some of the smartest people in the country, who studied the greatest works of humankind, and on balance, most of them seem to have gone into high finance or writing for television.

Meanwhile, without a vision, the people perish. How can the elites save the people they are nowhere near?

Most ominously, a blogger called “The Last Psychiatrist” cited Sandberg’s book as not inspiring at all, but rather a covert way of cajoling women to be ready, responsive cogs in a work machine that demands almost constant labor, and which forever dangles the threat of downsizing and cutbacks to keep workers in line.

You can flatter yourself that your hard work could, like Sandberg’s, earn the sponsorship of Larry Summers or Mark Zuckerberg, but as a worker without elite connections and stock options, what you’re really committing to by “leaning in” is just working eight to six (or maybe later) instead of the old nine to five.

Sandberg’s big nod to work-life balance is that she leaves the office at 5:30 to go home for dinner with her children, and then spends another couple of hours working at home. Every day!

A couple of days ago in Politico, writer Ann Marie Slaughter of the “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” article from The Atlantic last summer, stated with dismay that the long hours required at high-level jobs are part of what makes it, “so tough for women starting families … this is still a town that basically says in your 30s you have to work around the clock if you want to be somewhere in your 40s.”

Does anybody, male or female, need to work like this? What’s an economy for?

And what does it mean to “be somewhere,” anyhow?

I’m thinking about this in the context of writer Rod Dreher’s recent apologia about his reasons for moving back to Louisiana, narrated in his great new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. He references Washington, not Sandberg’s Silicon Valley, but the point is the same:

It’s like a friend of mine, a Louisiana expatriate working at a good Washington job told me (I paraphrase): 'Louisiana is a great place to be mediocre. In Washington, everybody is consumed by ambition. They all want to change the world. In Louisiana, you can be not very successful, and that’s okay, because people will still love you and invite you to the crawfish boil.'

I’m leaving the office at 4:30 for baseball practice, but I promise I will go check and see if there are any crawfish at the Largo Target.

Caroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Miss.,, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Md.. This post originally appeared the Good Letters blog HERE.

Image: Sheryl Sandberg, speaking at the World Economic Forum, via World Economic Forum / Flickr.

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