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Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

Posted by Amy Gutman  March 10, 2013 07:37 PM

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Sheryl SandbergThe offi­cial pub­li­ca­tion date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sand­berg tsunami approaches land­fall, its his­toric scope and impact are read­ily apparent.

Like any self-respecting trea­tise in the Inter­net age, Sandberg’s opus—currently  #1 on Amazon.com—has spawned wave upon wave of impas­sioned com­men­tary, crash­ing ashore in pre­dictable stages. First comes the announce­ment, then the cri­tique, then the back­lash against the cri­tique, then the meta con­ver­sa­tion about the con­ver­sa­tion. (For the record—and likely due to time con­straints and a prob­lem­atic Face­book habit–my own con­tri­bu­tions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)

My ini­tial plan to track Super­storm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was sim­ply too much com­ing in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a deci­sion to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been pay­ing atten­tion and read­ing quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a sin­gle ques­tion: Why aren’t we just tak­ing what we can use and for­get­ting about the rest?

A some­what baf­fled Paul Krug­man seemed to say as much this morn­ing on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s pre­scrip­tion is not for every­one. It seems to be quite help­ful for some. What is the big deal?

So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)

The more I think about it, the more I sus­pect that some of the debate’s feroc­ity stems from an atavis­tic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambi­tion often found its out­let in efforts to be the Good Girl, to ful­fill goals set by oth­ers, not to define our own. The suc­cess­ful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cul­ti­vated excel­lent lis­ten­ing skills and became a world-class mimic.  In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.

Put dif­fer­ently, per­haps one of the rea­sons we care so des­per­ately about what Sand­berg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think our­selves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alter­nately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t com­fort­able with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. We live in an age when the com­pet­ing voices are loud and many—and often far out­strip our capac­ity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intrigu­ingly, even Sand­berg her­self sounds famil­iar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Min­utes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this the­ory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a prob­lem not just for women but for pretty much every­one.  Another place it’s espe­cially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the after­math of the Great Recession.)

But there’s another rea­son that it’s a big deal, and it’s an impor­tant one: The dan­ger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppres­sive cud­gel. The dan­ger that women already struggling–and they are infi­nitely more numer­ous than Sand­berg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, prob­lems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sand­berg intended. But these things have a way of seep­ing in. The process is grad­ual. That Sand­berg and other uber achiev­ers have become the most vis­i­ble faces of women’s work­place issues is, as Car­olyn Edgar com­pellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.

Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Wal­ton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me per­son­ally, a book that would res­onate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Hor­ror, and Run the Other Way,’” she quipped. At the same time, she took the oppor­tu­nity to take the con­ver­sa­tion deeper—to ask friends and read­ers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in your­self, and in soci­ety) need to hap­pen to make that pos­si­ble?” she wrote on Facebook.

This is another kind of lean­ing in that I think we could use more of—a lean­ing into our own lives, to our own val­ues and needs. How do we decide whose advice to fol­low? Where do we look for guid­ance? Here, Sheryl Sand­berg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.

© 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.



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Originally published on the blog Plan B Nation.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Amy Gutman is a writer and lawyer with eclectic interests and a resume to match. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Psychology Today, and the Chicago Tribune, among other venues, and she is the author of two suspense novels, both published by Little, Brown. Currently a lecturer in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst, she lives and works in Plan B Nation. More »

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