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Why I Want My Daughters -- and Son -- to Read Lean In

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CHERYL SANDBERG MODERN COUPLES
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I'm a grandmother and I want my daughters, my son, their spouses and their spouses-to-be to read Lean In. I read it because Sheryl Sandberg is a member of the Center for Global Development board and I am its founding president. That is why I read it, but not why I liked it. (In fact, I feared it would annoy me, having read some of the snarky pre-publication reviews, though it was reviewed nicely here.)

Instead of annoying me, it spoke to me. Though I am at least two decades older than Sandberg, I have a lot in common with her. A comfortable upbringing and the educational opportunities that go with it. Work I've found deeply satisfying -- with income sufficient for full-time help at home when it mattered. Good husbands (yes, two of them) who took some pride in what I do and came around, in time, to the changing norms about men's and women's roles. And in line with Sandberg's advice, the instinct to lean in on my career early, making it less scary to make compromises later in favor of less travel or more sensible hours at work, which, in turn, opened, rather than closed, new opportunities.

So I'm in the tiny minority that has been lucky. What Sandberg helped me see is that it was not just luck. That I probably worked harder and was more ambitious and hard-driving in my own way than I have admitted to myself. That I shouldn't feel guilty about traveling lots when my children were small. That I shouldn't even feel guilty that I didn't at the time feel guilty! Of course, I missed the hugs and the bedtime stories -- but that was about what I was missing, not what my children were missing.

Maybe more than Sandberg -- but not much more -- there were moments when I chose flexibility and easier travel because of small children at home, or, recalling Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article, teenage children with whom I was losing touch. I did a Ph.D. (plenty of flexibility) when one child was a baby, and stayed on the research side of the World Bank for a good part of the time that another two were preschool age. In the latter case, I took some risk in speaking my own truth (less travel please, even in the World Bank) to invoke Sandberg's chapter 6 title -- as she feels she does when she leaves her office at 5:30 to be home for dinner with her kids. And l learned early a good lesson she conveys well: Going home at a reasonable time can make you more, not less, productive at work, as long as you lean in and make sure time at work is really all about work.

For one reason or another (perhaps because I was educated right through university by nuns who ran their own lives with their own hierarchy), I was a bit of a Sandberg ahead of my time. That's why the book spoke to me.

It's true that Lean In seems directed to privileged and lucky women like me, and we constitute only a tiny slice of the world's population. Even in the United States, only one in five households enjoyed income over $100,000 in 2011, and less than 50 percent of those had children at home. Even for the women in the two million households with that income and with two preschool children, the cost of decent child care can easily amount to one-half that income before taxes (yours truly, grandma, knows about that). That makes a 40-hour week a constant and stressful juggling act.

And of course, even low-income women in America are well off by global standards. Still, there are important lessons from development studies that buttress Sandberg's arguments. We know from time series and cross-country studies that as education levels, employment, property rights and political participation for individual women improve, societies gain overall: Children are healthier and live longer, and with all good things reinforcing other good things in a virtuous cycle, income rises and individual women gain. Improvements in women's status come about through a combination of countless small interactions involving individual women who lean in (to fight for more police protection from rape in India, and for their daughters' right to go to school in Afghanistan, for example), and in the best cases, policy and legal decisions at higher levels respond to and encourage these efforts.

Sandberg knows that only a tiny handful of women in the world have her options and opportunities. She acknowledges straightaway that the "vast majority of women... are struggling to make ends meet," and that external forces (the absurd costs of decent child care in this country, the lack of maternity leave for most women, including single mothers, the "long way we have to go before flextime is accepted in most workplaces") are a big part of the problem most women face. But volumes have been written about those external forces. Her book is fresh and new and readable because it puts something new on the table. Women, including those without her wealth and privileges, don't need to buy into the internal obstacles that the prevailing culture imposes. They can make themselves happier by leaning in at work when they're at work, and whenever possible, by speaking up about the tough choices that the external obstacles create. More women speaking up and seizing the helm of power can create its own momentum. It can change the culture that helps perpetuate those external forces.

So the early critics (as in "The Elitists' Guide for Working Women") missed the point. What Sandberg wants is that at least the lucky minority begin to understand the cultural and social obstacles they've internalized and that hold them back, and confront those forces at home and at work.

Sandberg is, at heart, a policy wonk (remember, she worked for Larry Summers). She has studied the development process in poor countries herself, and though she doesn't put it this way, she believes in many possible starts to a virtuous cycle of change. She spins her theory out well (one reviewer called it anecdotes, but they do tell a story and by the way, there are plenty of facts and footnotes). Women hold themselves back because they are getting all kinds of signals that they ought to --i f, for example, they want to be liked (and if they want to be successful at work, since that requires that they be liked). They feel guilty about choosing work over children, despite the research showing they needn't, because others frown on that choice.

Sandberg wants to change the assumptions and expectations that reinforce those feelings of guilt and doubt. She wants women to be admired when they are ambitious and assertive and sit at the table and ask for a promotion, and men to be admired when they do the vacuuming and tell the boss they have to get home in time to make dinner for the kids. How to get there? By more women doing it (and men too). When more leaning in women reach positions of leadership, they will fix the corporate and public policies that now reinforce instead of compensating for all that guilt and self-doubt. "Talking can transform minds, which can transform behaviors, which can transform institutions."

Anne-Marie Slaughter complains that this lets corporate America off the hook; perhaps she is right and Sandberg hopelessly naïve. (What was Marissa Mayer thinking, for example?) I say, why not both -- change from below to speed up change from above? Why not aim for a culture in which saying Marissa Mayer is a "working woman" would sound as strange as saying Mark Zuckerberg is a "working man?"

When Jack Welch wrote a best-seller about how to be a successful manager, did men write reviews complaining that it was easy for him to be successful? So far, I haven't seen a man's review, perhaps proving Sandberg is right that men too (the editors and the writers) need to be liberated from preconceptions about their choices.

Sandberg makes an earnest plea near the end of the book that women honor each other's choices and work together for change. (Some reviewers have gotten the point; this is one of the best ones.) She wants her daughter, if she has a successful career, be "not just respected and supported, but liked for her achievements."

The book is quick and fun to read. The personal stories of guilt and doubt are wonderfully candid. I want my daughters to read it and lean in. I want the men in their lives to like and not just admire women who are ambitious, hard-driving, career-oriented "working women" willing to speak out and lean in. I hope it will be a best-seller.