Gender struggle in the workplace? Hey Girlie, You’re Doing It Wrong!

I was prepared to be angry at Sheryl Sandberg when I started reading her book Lean In, which was released last week. 

The chief operating officer of Facebook gave this TED talk in December 2010, handing out advice for aspiring women leaders. With more than two million views, it’s helped put Sandberg on the list of ‘acceptable’ feminists. You know, the sort that are photogenic enough not to offend the lens, smart enough to have done well in their careers – but not too well, mind – and doing it all with a family in tow. Acceptable feminists aren’t hairy or overly angry; they don’t spend too much time hanging over the fire pit burning lingerie; they won’t get all mean and PMS-y at you just because you’re rolling in the dirty ol’ White Male Privilege sandpit. They're doing it all, backwards and in high heels, shooting off a few rounds at the patriarchy while they’re at it, but not with a big enough gun to be emasculating. Anyway.

I was prepared to be angry at Sandberg because of the plethora of advice manuals out there for women that announce: Hey Girlie! You’re Doing It Wrong. You know the sort – articles that tell you to wake up and smell the coffee, it’s work, not school! You won’t be handed a tiara for simply doing well – you’ve got to get out there and self-promote! Show them who’s boss! Put your Big Girl Panties on! Nice girls don’t get the corner office! Be more, well, like a man.

The problem with this discourse is that it places the blame on women for their lack of progress, and it also saddles them with the responsibility to fix the situation. It’s frustrating, particularly for women who are in jobs where they’re bashing their heads against an obvious glass ceiling, yet all the ‘wisdom’ they’re receiving is telling them that it’s their fault and only they can fix the situation. Blame, responsibility and powerlessness is a frustrating combination.

I expected Sandberg’s book to be yet another treatise on how all the girlies are Doing It Wrong. I'm stoked to say I was wrong, because reading Sandberg’s memoir-cum-feminist-manifesto was like having an older, successful woman sit you down over a nice cup of tea and a Cameo Cream and tell you that you’re not crazy, it isn’t all inside your head, and while there are things you can do to help yourself, it’s society in its entirety that needs to change, not just women’s attitudes towards career and leadership.

Sandberg does have some good advice to dish, though. Her main argument in Lean In is exactly what the title describes. Many women don’t put their hands up for promotion or take on a job they aren’t sure if they’re 100 percent capable of, while men won’t let total incompetence put them off at least giving it a try. Men typically overestimate their abilities, while women underestimate theirs. (This is also echoed in how men and women perceive their own levels of attractiveness, and how gender is spoken to in marketing.)

Sandberg urges women to ‘sit at the table’, ‘lean in’ to opportunities and ‘don’t leave before you leave’ – i.e. women who are thinking about having a baby shouldn’t let what might happen in the future hold them back for going at it full tilt in their professional lives. The message is: Hey, you're amazing! Have more confidence. Not: Sigh. You're doing it wrong. Again.

But crucially, Sandberg acknowledges that women have a tough double bind; in a chapter on success and likeability, she explores how women are expected (by both men and women) to be ‘nice’ in the workplace, and how failing to play the game sees them negatively branded. (Take, for example, how often women are told to 'Smile!' – if you don't believe me, Google it.) Women who don't negotiate don’t get the pay they deserve, but women who do negotiate are thought badly of. (I could go on, but you could just buy the book. In fact, do. Even if you're not a skirt-wearer, buy it. Read it. Enjoy it.)

An aside: This piece from Forbes.com, The Amazing Failure of Women’s Career Advice, is worth reading, for more on the blame/responsibility phenomenon.

My only bone to pick with the book is that, at 173 pages, it’s a little brief, and those who have read articles on Sandberg and seen her TED talk will already be familiar with many of the anecdotes. Still, it’s a lot more realistic than most career advice currently on offer for women, and less vomit-inducing than being told that avoiding bringing baking to work will help you get ahead.

Lean In, Random House/WH Allen, $36.99