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Terri Weiss Headshot

Lean In, Have It All, and Hope

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This is a long post, but it's about two topics I'm quite passionate about: The near-dearth of women in leadership positions, and the so-called 'have it all' work-life balance debate, which isn't as gender-oriented as many claim.

Although these two related issues are easily melded into one, they should remain discrete.

Over the past few weeks, Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work and The Will To Lead (you must have a subtitle in non-fiction!) has caused a gargantuan media splash, and even a 'catfight' among some prominent women. And in the midst of the brouhaha, I see a confusing blend of 'leaning in' advice with (I'm grimacing) 'having it all' proclamations.

Stop the noise.

Ms. Sandberg's book (co-written with one of her fellow Harvard graduates, writer Nell Scovell), focuses on women at the top. It's about the hackneyed 'glass ceiling' and what we, as woman, can do within ourselves to break it. Ms. Sandberg does not disregard societal and corporate impediments to gender equality. She does not suggest that women are solely responsible for the scanty number of women in the 'C-Suites' and corner offices. Instead, she seeks to raise awareness about thoughts and actions -- even subconscious ones -- that can be altered by women themselves to start increasing our numbers at leadership levels.

Everyone knows the number of women leaders -- in business, politics, the professions, the trades, even the arts -- has flatlined, despite our 50/50 + numbers in colleges and graduate schools, and our oft-hailed academic superiority over the brawnier sex. Ms. Sandberg, who is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, is a staunch believer that women can work to improve their chances of becoming leaders if we are more self-aware of certain gender-based stereotypes, assumptions, internal behaviors, and societal expectations that hold us back. And then take action to change those biases in specified ways.

Absolutely. It's been said countless times before in recent decades. But NOT by a major corporate leader with a huge media platform, who also happens to be a woman. Finally. A prominent female COO with the brains, power and visibility to ignite the fire under an issue that should have been in the forefront of workers and management, instead of hidden on the back burner.

So why would Ms. Sandberg's book lead to so much back-biting and anger?

Because the issues of gender-leadership lag, and 'having it all' work-life balance, are being wrapped up together in one untidy, imbalanced package. Except Ms. Sandberg barely touches on the 'work-life balance.' Is that because she 'has it all?' I'll get to that in a minute.

A phony, media-touted 'catfight' has been fabricated -- where none actually exists -- between Ms. Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is a lawyer, Princeton professor and former senior State Department official. In July 2012, Ms. Slaughter wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled 'Why Women Still Can't Have It All,' which noted some of the major institutional obstacles to raising a family while working, including overwhelming travel commitments. Some have latched on to Professor Slaughter's article as a rejection of the feminist working mom ideal, when, in fact, the article was written after Professor Slaughter faced a family crisis and turned down a promotion in order to handle it.

In fact, in a recent interview at Wharton, Professor Slaughter acknowledged the validity of Ms. Sandberg's exhortations, and reiterated that external change was also needed to ensure that both women and men need to pursue a proper balance, both within themselves and via organizational changes, as they attained leadership positions. Or as she put it: "[Women and men need to] own what we want and recognize that if we want both the power and dignity of a profession and the love of family -- however family is constructed -- that is entirely legitimate...[And then] have the courage to both talk about it and ask for change."

Neither Ms. Sandberg nor Professor Slaughter ignore the need for systemic change, either, as stated beautifully by a Latina psychologist: "Companies and organizations [must] begin to implement major structural and policy changes designed to promote leadership among women."

I can't omit to mention the searing essay written by former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan, who mulls over her empty personal life during her hard-charging Lehman days: "I did have relationships -- a spouse, friends and family -- and none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over." She ends her essay with a terrible lesson: If Lehman hadn't gone down in flames, she may never have discovered that she needed to learn to appreciate her life.

In the aftermath of Ms. Callan's essay, she has done some back-tracking, insisting she isn't sad at all. She says her essay was just a cautionary be-careful-what-you wish-for tale. A "do what feels right, but think about it first" kind of piece.

That makes me raise my eyebrows a little. Her words in the essay, "I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did," and "I can't make up for lost time" are laced with incredible sorrow and regret. I think her interviewer, Ann Curry at NBC News, summarized Ms. Callan's current views better than Ms. Callan: "Just look before you lean."

Ms. Sandberg, who doesn't focus her Lean In initiative on the "work-life balance" at all, is not at odds with Ms. Slaughter. Or with Ms. Callan. Their credos are complementary: Internal initiative -- if you want to "go for it "-- plus institutional change will yield a new, more positive dynamic between work and personal life. For both women and men.

Honestly, I'm appalled by the reactions of Ms. Sandberg's critics -- mostly women -- who mistakenly combine Lean In's leadership self-help suggestions with the "having it all" issue. Maureen Dowd lambasts Ms. Sandberg personally for "having it all" and ipso facto unqualified to write about the gender leadership gap, denigrating Ms. Sandberg as a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots reigniting the women's revolution." She snarks away with tart lines like: "[Sandberg] seems to think she can remedy social paradigms with a new kind of club -- a combo gabfest, Oprah session and corporate pep talk. (Where's the yoga?)"

I find Ms. Dowd's insults patently offensive. (Ms. Dowd had to correct one of her comments, post-publication, for quoting something from Lean In completely out of context to support her ridiculous thesis.) What an counter-productive non-sequitur, by a journalist I used to respect, to an incredibly important conversation. Another reason I'm glad I cancelled my subscription to The New York Times.

Other critics similarly have blasted away at Ms. Sandberg's wealth and background, again confusing her leadership focus with lifestyle issues. For example, her book is referred to as a "privileged manifesto." Even self-styled critics on Amazon lob these kinds of grenades at her, instead of leaning BACK in their armchairs to read what Ms. Sandberg actually wrote.

All these critics completely disregard the positive impact Lean In is already having -- It's bringing the gender-leadership lag in issue back into the limelight. Okay Ms. Sandberg may have it all: Brains, money, looks, power, platform, position. But none of that dilutes the power of her message, and her insights ito how woman can help empower themselves.

Forbes writer Anne Doyle got it right. I totally agree with her statement: "[Sandberg] has the vision, the skill and the pure guts to pour gasoline on the cooling embers of the women's movement."

But... if the conversation is going to be about both leaning in and "having it all," because the gender leadership gap and work-life balance are inevitably connected? Well, maybe that's inevitable. Maybe my attempt to keep them discrete is artificial.

In which case, the perspective of a 'Millennial' professional woman -- the audience to whom Lean In is really addressed -- may have the greatest validity and poignancy yet. Valarie Kaur, a thirty-something activist-writer, acknowledges that 'leaning in' to careers requires female and male professionals, of all backgrounds, to 'lean on' others to perform household services. That systemic change is required, to revolutionize and innovate the workplace, in addition to personal ambition.

But, most important -- and what gives me hope for the next generation of leaders, Ms. Kaur suggests that 'leaning toward' is what should really be the focus of this conversation. She writes that 'having it all' (i.e., having a fabulous career and a wonderful family life) was never part of the equation for her many many of her peers. She writes: "We never wanted to 'have it all' for ourselves. We wanted to have enough for everyone. And that is what we're leaning toward."

Ah. Hope. Now that's something we can all agree on.

I hope!