WE OWE A lot to Anne-Marie Slaughter. Last summer, the Princeton University professor’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” kicked off an overdue, protracted national-scale debate on the difficulty of juggling the demands of professional success and committed parenting, the likes of which we haven’t had in a while. Shortly after Slaughter’s polemic hit newsstands, Marissa Mayer, just 37, was named CEO of Yahoo!, becoming the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company at the time and stirring controversy when she revealed that she was seven months pregnant. (Months later, she banned telecommuting companywide and was sharply criticized by some as being “anti-parent.”)
Then, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg got in on the action, publishing in March the ambitiously titled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the following months, it sat at the top of bestseller lists, with staggering sales triggering multiple printings. Sandberg, one of the wealthiest women in the world, donates all related profits to her newly established nonprofit, also called Lean In, encouraging women to form consciousness-raising Lean In Circles, in which they’ll discuss money and maternity.
Suddenly, there was a lot of estrogen in the air. A year into this cultural conversation, we’re still trying to make sense of what it all means.
First, a caveat. I don’t know anyone, woman or man, naïve enough to believe that any of us can have whatever “it all” entails. When Slaughter’s indignant article set off a firestorm about the impossibility of work-life balance, I was happy (as I always am) to witness a (mostly) thoughtful discussion unfold. But I was and still am miffed that anyone thinks women were sold a false bill of goods. Who was that mightily influential yet terribly mysterious person who promised us everything we ever wanted? How did we let him (it must have been a “him”) get away with spreading such a vicious lie, and why do we allow it to persist?
Among this lady leader trio, Sandberg stands out, but not for the reason you may think. Beg me to take off my rose-colored specs if you will, but when Sandberg leans earnestly across a news anchor’s desk to extol the virtues of shared household responsibilities or urge budding leaders to aspire to greatness, I hear a profound message not often directed specifically at young women: Dream big. Hope. Yes we can. Maybe we can’t have it all, but we can set realistic expectations and aspire to the more that we might be able to accomplish individually or collectively.
If Slaughter debunks in dismay and Mayer is ambivalent about her role as a model for anything other than corporate CEO, Sandberg is a one-woman pep squad begging us all to reach for the stars. She has no illusion that her grand pronouncements apply to all women. Poor working women juggling multiple jobs aren’t doing so because they forgot to politely inquire about better benefits. Higher up the professional food chain, it rankles and rings hollow to be told to “lean in” when, as one partner-track attorney friend often puts it, “I’m leaning so hard I’m about to fall over.” But Sandberg is exceptionally excited by our collective potential and seems keen on helping other women advance. That’s far too rare among the top echelons of high-achievers. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti summed it up in a March Washington Post op-ed, lauding Sandberg for even caring at all. “Because if there’s anything wealthy women are desperate for, it’s the chance to lead a social movement,” she wrote sarcastically, giving Sandberg’s critics a collective side-eye.
Valenti also rightly scolded Sandberg’s earliest detractors, most of whom hadn’t even bothered to read Lean In and instead seized the opportunity to demean one woman’s achievements. “The view that Sandberg is too rich and powerful to advise working women is shortsighted; it assumes that any sort of success is antithetical to feminism,” Valenti wrote. “The truth is, feminism could use a powerful ally. Here’s a nationally known woman calling herself a feminist, writing what will be a wildly popular book with feminist ideas, encouraging other women to be feminists. And we’re worried she has too much influence? That she’s too ... ambitious?”
Count this feminist among Sandberg’s eager if unlikely groupies. In April, I perched on the edge of a complimentary usher’s seat in an auditorium balcony while Sandberg repeated the book’s talking points in conversation with another female trailblazer, Condoleezza Rice. The scene was admittedly weird, my cognitive dissonance at an all-time high. As event guides, we staffers had been instructed to keep an eye out for fellow feminists. Anti-war Code Pink protesters had threatened to storm the doors, armed with anti-Rice banners to unfurl. Inside, the docile, multiethnic crowd of earnest Millennials and Gen Xers of the patient-exhausted variety listened to Sandberg extol the virtues of paid parental leave and equitable partnership. (Rice joked about being happily single.) To be honest, nothing either of them said seemed all that radical to me. Ask for more money? Obviously. Push for better benefits? For sure. But then I looked at a friend seated beside me, her wide eyes shining in the dark as she occasionally muttered, “That is so true.”
My friend and I—politically left-leaning, modestly successful, self-employed women—may not seem like the Lean In target market. For many years, we had more in common with the Code Pink dissidents than with a former wartime secretary of state. We live in San Francisco, an almost ridiculously progressive enclave. Feminism is our milieu such that we’re genuinely shocked when we encounter overt misogyny. We chose our partners based on their ability to cultivate an emotionally rewarding, professionally supportive lifelong partnership. (It’s a mouthful, but it’s true.) My friend is at least as driven and gutsy as I am. I don’t think of her as a woman seeking self-help dictums.
But never underestimate what others find indispensable. Like everyone, we have bills to pay. We need raises, and we need to ask for them. We’ve read the books (Women Don’t Ask) and heard the Gloria Steinem speeches on which Sandberg’s work is grounded. We’re ready for the next chapter. As Valenti pointed out, “Detractors underestimate how radical Sandberg’s messages are for a mainstream audience.”
Maybe we all do. Think of it this way: Would you tell a chef not to read another cookbook, or admonish a theologian for bothering to study the Bible yet again? It’s not so strange that my friend needs to be reminded of her professional worth. When I dropped her at home that night, I even suggested that my pal might want to lend Lean In to her (supportive, kind, feminist) husband. Mine had already moved our copy from my bedside table to his. Even the best of us need a refresher course every so often.
There’s another fallacy in these conversations—the assumption that ambition equals ego. Desire to change the world doesn’t necessitate narcissism. When we talk about humbling ourselves—before God, before one another—we need to think about what we’re trying to achieve. What purpose does our humility serve? Where’s the line between modesty and self-sabotage? No one would accuse tent revival preachers of immodesty, nor would anyone in our modern age suggest they forego adequate payment for their talents. No one thinks poorly of local activists and politicians striving to build a better world. The very large tasks of eradicating racism, sexism, and homophobia aren’t seen as silly, unattainable goals. So why is the personal-yet-political request for living wages or better paid leave contentious ground? Why are we so keen to pick on a strong, powerful woman with a few suggestions for a women-centric work-life balance?
If we’re honest, many of us have outsized goals for our rather small lives. We’d like to keep our families safe and well fed. We’d like to keep the planet from melting. We dream of lasting peace. If you want to design blueprints for change, it helps to first draw up plans for your own life. Just because women who have been vocal about identifying with Lean In have largely had some professional success doesn’t mean that the book can’t also be a useful map for those who aren’t on the CEO track.
Sandberg prescribes one set of adjustable ideas to a fairly wide range of working women. When we can, women ought to ask for a wee bit more in terms of workplace flexibility and compensation. When possible, we should find a partner who will pitch in more at home. Sandberg encourages men to take these same issues to heart. Make space for women in the break room and the boardroom.
At its core, Lean In advocates that women approaching job interviews, career crossroads, and personal milestones apply a sort of mindfulness to their lives. Can we be honest about what we really want and have the courage to pursue those goals in a society that doesn’t always support strong women? I hope so. I want more—not fewer—people working toward a more-equitable world. Social change happens when we put aside our individual needs and find value in supporting a greater good. We can all lean toward that.
Brittany Shoot is a Sojourners contributing writer.