The Assumptions That Bind

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, center, shares a laugh with General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, left, and others, Tu
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, center, shares a laugh with General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, left, and others, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington before President Barack Obama hosted a meeting with the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

I haven't yet read Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In. I doubt I'm alone in this, seeing as it just came out a couple weeks ago, but with all the hype surrounding it you'd think it was already replacing Gideon's Bible in motel room drawers. Thus, although I've barely been able to keep up with the barrage of media coverage (much of it from before the book was released), I have at least glimpsed some of the stream of commentary and controversy the book has engendered. And one idea, in particular, has caught my attention.

Lean In is apparently not just focused on what women must do if they want to shoot to the top of their chosen careers, it's what the men in their lives must do, too. It turns out that behind every great woman (at least every great married woman) is a man -- a man who is willing to share the chores, care for the children, and go halvsies on all the many other little necessities of daily living.

Now, this is something I can get behind 100 percent.

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Of course men should share the load. But this has been a pet peeve of mine ever since the modern women's rights movement first pierced my adolescent consciousness -- why is it always women who are expected to liberate themselves? Why do women claw their way out of stereotypical expectations and roles, only to have the accepted standard re-set automatically to gender bias? Why is it always about women entering a man's world, and so rarely about men entering a woman's?

Consider this: When my husband and I married, I "chose" to keep my own name. My husband didn't choose to keep his -- he just kept it. When our children were born, we decided to give them both of our last names, burdening them (some would say) with a hyphenated last name. But of the many couples I know who decided against hyphenation and opted to give their children a single last name, I can think of almost none who considered making that one name be the mother's. Why is that? Why does the standard for naming always re-set to the patriarchal?

In the late '90s we enrolled my son in a preschool in Manhattan's West Village. A hipper, more liberal neighborhood would be hard to come by. Mothers and fathers alike dropped off and picked up their kids and got involved in school activities. One spring day, I came to pick him up and was handed a note which read simply, "Please send in a picture of you with your child."

We had a million pictures of our child -- of course -- but, as it happened, few recent ones that included either of us. Nonetheless I dug around, found a snapshot of my son and I, and dutifully brought it in. A week or so after that, on the Friday before Mother's Day, my son proudly handed me his present -- a lovely, handmade popsicle-stick frame holding that photo. Mother and son. It was sweet. A perfect Mother's Day gift.

But I realized that everyone else was also getting framed mother-and-child snaps and that, in fact, was what had been intended. The preschool teachers, planning a Mother's Day gift, didn't feel the need to clarify that they were looking for mother-and-child photos. The "you" in the note was assumed to be mothers. Apparently, it was a safe assumption -- no one had taken the note to mean the inclusion of dads.

Which brings me to my next point. I am not intending to point fingers here. Much like racism today, sexual stereotypes are engrained deep within our psyches and even internalized -- the most suspect among us are those that say, "I'm not sexist!"

When my children entered elementary school, they were surrounded by a few dozen highly-educated, experienced, warm and nurturing women: teachers, administrators, social workers, etc. There were also a handful -- no, fewer than a handful -- of male teachers. But guess who got all the attention? Guess who were almost universally the mothers' favorites?

"Oh, Madeline has Mr. J? Max had him last year -- he's great with those kids!"

"Mr. P is our favorite! He brings in his guitar and sings with them!"

I was part of this. I loved those male teachers. It was so wonderful to see grown men who had the kindness and patience to teach. Men who could have done anything but had chosen a career working with small children. But eventually I began to wonder. Why do we worship the male teachers, and take the female ones pretty much for granted? There's an expression used to describe a certain kind of racial profiling -- people talk of being pulled over on the highway for the crime of "driving while black." Were we guilty of admiring someone for the career of "teaching while male?"

As is so often the case with bigotry, the sexist assumptions underlying our expectations of men's and women's roles hurt not just women but everyone involved. Many men would love to play a more active role at home, but expectations at the workplace prevent them from cutting back on their hours, taking extended leaves, or changing their work habits in any of the other ways women so often do. Women, of course, still have miles to go before they are leading our companies and earning what men earn. And I can only imagine what all these assumptions and expectations -- especially around caregiving -- are doing to our children.

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR and general-topic employee communications. Her award-winning blog about writing for corporate communicators can be found at; see for information about her services.