How to Be a Successful Woman: Be Human

Sheryl Sandberg is not a professional automaton; she's a very human professional

Posted Apr 04, 2013

I’ve been kind of appalled by the responses to Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. It’s too one-percenty. It’s about “clawing your way to the top.” It doesn’t consider the real problems of most working women, or of most women, or of other particular groups of women.  She was “lucky “ to have Important Male Mentors.

So what? Does every woman have to speak for every other woman to speak truth? To make a difference? Isn’t Sheryl Sandberg’s experience as valid as mine? Or yours? Or your cleaning lady’s? And frankly, it’s the one percent who can make some immediate policy changes just by being who they are at the top. Is this bad?

I have to admit that I was one of the people who read Sandberg’s Barnard commencement address a couple of years ago, and her profile in the New Yorker last year, with a degree of skepticism. I wanted to hate her. I wanted to find the flaw. If she’s a great business woman, then she must be a sucky mom, right? Or be divorced.  Or hate other women. When I really paid attention to her, however, I had to admire her words and recognize my own thwarted ambition.

A lot of people complain that she’s blaming the victim, telling women they have to fix themselves internally before structural change will occur. To them I say, have you actually read the book? She’s talking about the need for internal and external changes. Leaning in means not prematurely cutting yourself off from seeking promotions or taking on extra leadership roles just because you might want flexibility to have a personal life and children. She says it’s better to lean in to your goals and keep going towards them, and work out the details later; don’t cut off possibilities for yourself because you’re afraid you’ll have too much work or responsibility. When women do that – and they definitely do – then they often find themselves in lesser work that’s unfulfilling, and ultimately they may drop out of the workforce.

Sound familiar, anyone?

Her section on mentors is a little harsh. In short, she says there’s been too much emphasis on women finding mentors, as if a mentor is the secret key to success. She says, “We need to stop telling them [women], ‘Get a mentor and you will excel. Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’”

Speaking as one of the many women who has lamented her lack of mentor and looked at finding one as the deus ex machina necessary to success, let me say, “Ouch!” However, after rubbing that bruise, let me also say that her words echo the phrase, attributed to Buddha, familiar to habitués of yoga studios and meditation retreats everywhere, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Honestly, she’s just saying you’ve got to work hard. No one is going to get you there until you’ve proven yourself. 

So, here’s what I like about this book:

  • She’s honest about her self-doubts. Lean in also means learning to work with the negative, doubting voice in the brain and acting confident, even if you don’t feel it; it means, to quote a friend’s favorite phrase, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
  • She’s honest about her intelligence, her luck, and all the help she’s received from men, from women, from bosses, and from assistants.
  • She’s honest about her mistakes, like the time she failed to see the raised hand of one of the few women in the room and called on man after man. At a talk on gender equality.
  • She says she’s a feminist. If you think this is minor, just check with any female under forty and find out if she wants to identify herself as feminist, and then look at the other prominent women in business and notice how they distance themselves from the term, and from the “issues” that are “women’s.” Why do you think we haven’t had that final burst of change that would institute meaningful family leave policies, equal pay, paid sick leave, and flexible scheduling across all industries, businesses, jobs? Because women have had to distance themselves from these issues to get ahead.

The feminism I grew up with taught that once women made it to the top, they were going to change things for everyone. Well, the movement stalled, didn’t it? As Sandberg says, women who made it found themselves adhering to a stereotype about what men are like, and men often have to do that, too. The point was supposed to be that when women gained equality, then men would have more options, too. Only it didn’t work out that way, because women at the top forgot that last step: speaking out to make change. Sheryl Sandberg didn’t. She says, “I believe that this will create a better world, one where half our institutions are run by women and half our homes are run by men.”

  • She gives practical advice. She talks about how to negotiate salary. She talks about how to navigate the mentor-mentee relationship. She talks about how to handle negative criticism. In every instance she talks about challenges she overcame.

Yes, Sheryl Sandberg is different from most of us. She’s a corporate superstar, very bright, extremely ambitious, and powerful. She’s not a professional automaton, however; she’s a very human professional. By showing her humanness, she’s also in the vanguard of a changing working paradigm. This is what we were aiming for, back in the 1980s. She made it up there and now she wants to encourage more women and men to join her, and to be human about it. Maybe you don’t want to be part of her working world. Maybe your ambitions are totally different from hers. But I honestly believe that it’s people like Sheryl Sandberg who will help shape work life policy in a more equitable, family-friendly direction, and that will in turn make life better for all of us. She’s speaking her truth, and encouraging others to speak theirs. I say, applaud her for bringing the focus back to what a lot of us would like to think is old news: We’d like to think those feminist battles have been won, because they were exhausting. The battles were not won, however, and the movement, until very recently, had been beaten back into the tributaries of academia and radicalism. With Sheryl Sandberg, the women’s movement, feminism, whatever you want to call the effort to achieve equality between women and men has moved back into the mainstream. Let’s lean in on that!

 © Hope A. Perlman April 2013

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