Oh, Sheryl. I was all ready to hate your book.
But instead, on the heels of the Atlantic article
and the ever-brewing mommy wars, I think you’ve written an honest,
humble, and true-to-life assessment of women, work, and the will to lead
with your book Lean In. Bear with me as I dive all over the book to collect my thoughts and reactions to your words and observations.
I was drawn in right away by what you wrote on page 12 about your Jewish roots, and how
education for girls was less important than education for boys. To be
honest, I would have loved for you to talk more about how Judaism or
Jewish values impacted your trajectory in life. Your husband has a
Jewish name but you don’t mention your faith much in your book. Of
course, Judaism isn’t what your book is about at all, but since you
start off with it, I sort of hoped you’d come full circle. Ah, well.
HIDING YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS
talk about modesty and being humble too, a subject about which I am passionate, since I teach 5 bi-weekly classes on ethical character
improvement (how’s that for a humblebrag?).
On page 42, you describe keeping your award, becoming a Henry Ford
Scholar for having the highest first-year academic record at business
school, a secret. You subtly lament your decision to do so, putting it
in a greater context that “as a girl, you know that being smart is good
in lots of ways, but it doesn’t make you particularly popular or
attractive to boys.” Much later in life, you follow up with this,
recognizing that “if a woman is competent, she does not seem nice
enough” and that “defying expectations and reaching for those [academic
or corporate] opportunities lead to being judged as undeserving and
selfish.” You conclude, however, that “owning one’s success is key to achieving
Sheryl, from a pragmatic standpoint you
may be right. I don’t work in the corporate world, although I sometimes
wonder if I might have been successful there (as corporate America
defines success). But from a human perspective, you may be buying into a
false and wrong dynamic. You may have learned to succeed in the
system, but the system itself is flawed. What I mean by this is: how
does it benefit humans, men and women alike, when a beautiful, natural
personality trait (downplaying one’s achievements) is looked down upon
as preventing ascension in the academic and corporate sphere?? Quite
honestly, if I found myself in such an environment, where my positive personality traits were useless and even detrimental, I
would seriously question whether that was an environment in which I
would want to remain.
(Note: I do not speak of self-abrogation or martyrdom. I speak of a healthy reticence to trumpet one’s achievements.)
BOUNDARIES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
Your thoughts about men and women and how to draw
boundaries in the workplace resonated, since in Judaism, these are subjects that
are built into Jewish law and living. It always fascinates me to see
how other systems have dealt with these challenges. You write on page
72 and 73 that men and women may refrain from certain mentorship roles
in the workplace “out of fear of what others might think.” Some
solutions you suggest are, for men and women across the board, having a
“breakfast or lunch only policy” so that dinner together won’t be
unseemly. You conclude that “anything that evens out the opportunities
for men and women is the right practice.”
Personally, I’m intrigued that your main concern is of what it might seem like, rather than what might actually happen.
You use words like “perceived,” “it would look awful,” “what others
might think,” “it looks like dating.” But I’m sure in the workplace
you’ve seen that professional relationships often actually become
romantic relationships. The boundaries you mention are designed to look
professional to others but not to prevent unseemly behavior, unless
you’re describing harassment (“everyone involved has to make sure to
behave professionally so women – and men – feel safe in all settings”).
In Judaism, the boundaries are set too, not only
because of how it will look, but also because of what might actually
develop. Men and women who are not related leave doors open or at least
unlocked. When spending the night in the same home, minimum numbers of
other people must be present as well so they are not alone. Even casual
touching is a boundary. So I found your discussion on this topic very
interesting. I wonder if any boundaries have been drawn to discourage
workplace romances in general and how romance in the workplace affects
the discrepancy in perception of competence between men and women.
Maybe in your next book you’ll talk more about that.
WORK AND FEELINGS
loved reading about how you tried to be professional and organized and
keeping your personal life separate from work. This interests
me, since I run a non-profit together with my husband. On page 87, you
describe your weekly meetings with Omid, your superior at Google, and
how you would enter his office with a typed agenda and “get right to
it.” But you got feedback from Omid that you should take a minute to
connect with him personally before diving right in to business only.
women like me who work with their husbands, this resonated really
strongly. I am business-like and efficient, and this was a lesson I had
to learn too – that sometimes the right business relationship is
actually two parts efficiency and one part emotional connection. As an
Orthodox woman, I would definitely have strong boundaries in a business
relationship with another man who is not my husband – I would not be
comfortable with the emotional connection, innocent though it is, that
you describe – but the concept is a true and important one otherwise.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
continue on this theme of sharing your personal life with work with a
story on page 90 about your sister-in-law’s roommate whose daughter was
diagnosed with a serious syndrome, and how she would cry at the office –
with positive outcomes from her compassionate workmates. But what
interested me here is a theme that you espouse throughout the book,
which, to be honest, I was surprised to read from you: that you believe
perhaps a rather old-fashioned notion (my assessment, not yours): that
men and women are inherently different.
I found this so
refreshing, because, duh that I, a religious Orthodox woman, would buy
such a notion, but coming from you? Well, that was downright exciting.
The way you put it here was almost in a by-the-way fashion, which made
it even more endearing, but it repeats itself periodically through your
book, like on page 145 where you describe the content of your TedTalk
about “differences between men and women both in their behavior and in
the way their behavior is perceived by others…” You write that the
mom in the story knew “several men at my firm who have had similar
experiences with sick children, but they didn’t feel they could be as
forthcoming as I was,” she said. “So, in the end, I think my female
manner of relating served me well.”
I just love that
you are unabashed about these differences and don’t consider the
admission anti-feminist or a step back for women. You encourage women
to be aware of these differences and to use them in the most effective
way, but not to negate them or ignore them.
have to take issue with your use of the word “lucky” since I don’t
believe in luck, but rather in Divine Providence. But be that as it
may, you talk about how “lucky” you are to have a partner like Dave,
your husband, and how you guys share the load roughly approximating
In the Jewish marriage
classes I’ve attended over the years (October 18th is our 20th
anniversary) I’ve heard this bit of wisdom: don’t try to divide up the
job 50/50. You try to give 100% and he tries to give 100%, and then you
will have not only equality but love.
You write about
your division of labor on page 112 as being rather traditional: Dave
pays bills, handles finances, provides tech support. You schedule kids’
activities, make sure there is food in the fridge, plan the birthday
parties. In our home, I handle bills, make sure there is food in the
fridge, and make all the appointments. We both do carpool and diapers.
My husband gives baths, does bedtime most nights and helps with errands
and taking the kids to appointments wherever possible. The overriding
attitude in our marriage is that we will both do whatever we can to make
this family work and to show each other that we care.
don’t call this lucky. I call it a blessing from Above combined with
hard work, focus and attention from us that comes from education about
marriage. I used to think that while I have a very helpful husband,
because our family has traditional beliefs about home and family, that
perhaps liberal Jewish families would be more likely to include husbands
who are “liberated” to “lean in,” as you put it, to their families.
More likely to change diapers, grocery shop, and do baths. But I don’t
find this to be the case. Husbands who rely on their wives to do more
around the house are a universal problem, and I don’t find that helpful
husbands exist more or less in “liberated” households.
Leaning in to your family for men, then, is more a function of being a mensch than anything else.
BEING AWAY FROM YOUR KIDS
I’m hardly the CEO of Facebook and my company is significantly smaller
than Google. But there is something you and I share: we both struggle
with leaving our kids. There are speaking engagements I’ve turned down
and events I haven’t attended because I didn’t feel it was right to
leave my kids so much. And there are plenty of things I have done and
attended that I realized afterward – I shouldn’t have gone so early or
stayed so late or attended at all. So on page 135-136 when you quote a NICHHD report from 1991 about how
“children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not
develop differently than those who were also cared for by others” I sat
up straight and paid attention.
I don’t think me not
leaving my kids has anything to do with things mentioned in they study,
like cognitive skills, language competence, social competence, or the
quality of the mother-child bond (although I would seriously question
that last one as remaining unaffected). I leave less than I would
otherwise because I want to have my finger on the pulse of their lives
and because I want to give my kids values. I also don’t want my older
kids (19, 17, 15) to think they are responsible for my younger kids (13,
10, 6, 3). I am the mom, and caring for them is MY job, and my
husband’s. Of course, I expect all my kids to help around the house
regularly, but not because it’s their responsibility to run it.
when I leave my kids with my husband, which is always our plan A, my
absence is fine until it interferes with my ability to have my finger on
the pulse of their lives, or until I feel I am sending a message that
work is more important than family (note: kids feeling resentful is not
an accurate signal that my judgment is awry). It’s pretty impossible to
quantify what a chilled-out evening at home with my kids doing nothing
can achieve. I also want to be their role model – so what am I
role-modeling to them in terms of how I spend my leisure time, what I
chat about on the phone with my friends, how I prioritize my calendar?
know that you, Sheryl, feel that leaning in more to work IS positive
role-modeling, especially to daughters, and on a limited scale I agree.
But I don’t swallow that whole. If the job of parenting is to give my
kids values, that should usually inform how I prioritize my time.
people believe that the workplace is largely a meritocracy, which means
we look at individuals, not groups, and determine that differences in
outcomes must be based on merit, not gender. Men at the top are often
unaware of the benefits they enjoy simply because they’re men…” (page
150). In other words, the workplace SHOULD be a meritocracy, but, in
fact, isn’t. Well, I believe it should be and I will fight for equal
pay for equal work in my field and any other.
raise some serious eyebrows considering my view on women in the
rabbinate. But see, I don’t believe Judaism is a meritocracy. It’s not
either a democracy. Judaism is a theocracy. So what God says (and we
can certainly converse about what He did or didn’t say) goes regardless
of merit. Do I have the skills to be rabbi? A pretty good one, I’d
think. In fact, I think I’d make a rockin’ good cantor. Not the
point. I also think I’d make a great dad. But in religion I seek what
God wants me to do, and try to follow that as best as I can. This is
why I wholly and fully agree with the meritocracy aspect of your
argument, Sheryl, and find it to be no conflict whatsoever with my views
on women in religion.
In fact, I find the gender bias
in modern times in the workplace even more egregious than gender
differences in the religious sphere because there is no viable
explanation for it. One might argue that the “explanations” the
religious adherents espouse are wrong, outdated or historically
inaccurate, but that’s not really the point. If you were to pinpoint a
male CEO and ask why more women do not hold senior positions, what would
he even respond?
And this is why, to your view, I am a
proud feminist. You struggle on page 158 with calling yourself a
feminist, and ultimately embrace the title, since if a feminist is
“someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the
sexes” – then, yes, you and I wholeheartedly agree with every word,
along with 65% of my fellow women. And my religious views are no
recount a story where the students introduce their parents at school
parents’ night. Your friend Sharon’s daughter Sammy pointed at her
father and said, “This is Steve [ouch, my ears hurt when I hear kids
refer to their parents by their first names], he makes buildings, kind
of like an architect, and he loves to sing.” Then Sammy pointed at
Sharon and said, “This is Sharon, she wrote a book, she works full-time,
and she never picks me up from school.” To Sharon’s credit, hearing
this account did not make her feel guilty. Instead, she said, “I felt
mad at the social norms that make my daughter feel odd because her
mother doesn’t conform to those norms.”
Sheryl, I feel like that a lot. Not mad, per se, because it really
doesn’t help, but I do feel annoyed at the social norms that make my
family and me feel odd. I mean here the social norms of skimpy clothing
for girls, such that I can’t find appropriate clothing for them in
mainstream stores. Norms of body image messages, such that I cringe
every time my kids go the mall. Norms of men and women who are casual
friends greeting each other with a hug and a kiss, so that I’m the odd
one for saving those affectionate gestures for a spouse or close
I understand that sometimes, when we feel
like the oddball, it helps to realize that what is socially “normal”
isn’t always the right way.
US VS. US
me, one of the saddest parts of your book is highlighted on page 162
where you describe the media-fueled mommy wars. From Marissa Meyer and
the backlash to her decision to work through her abridged maternity
leave from Yahoo (as CEO), to the Betty Friedan-Gloria Steinem rift, we
have always been our own worst enemies. And, as you sadly note, the
media loves a cat-fight.
Orthodox Jews are no exception. Someone on this blog once referenced the “narcissism of small differences”
and I haven’t stopped thinking about that since. The more closely
aligned we are on political, social, or religious issues, the more our
small differences will appear enormously insurmountable.
non-Jews think that Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Jews have SO
much in common? Wouldn’t Reform and Conservative Jews think that all
Orthodox Jews have SO much in common? Wouldn’t modern Orthodox Jews
think that ultra-Orthodox Jews have SO much in common? Wouldn’t
ultra-Orthodox Jews think that Chassidim of various sects have SO much
Can’t we quit the obnoxious narcissism of
small differences?? Women need each other badly to support our mutual
cause, and Jews of all stripes need each other badly for the same
reason. And Orthodox Jews need each other badly too. Yet our greatest
enemies are often those most similar to ourselves. Frankly, that
stinks. It’s time for us to stop thinking about superiority,
inferiority, insecurity, and jealousy. We should be too busy making a
difference in this world for the good.
At least, I can hope.
LET’S LEAN IN
that’s why, Sheryl, I haven’t really taken your message head-on, as I
thought I might before reading it. Because I realized as I read how
much we have in common. How much our messages jive. How your voice in
this book is honest, real, and humble. So you keep leaning in, Sheryl,
and so will I. I’ll lean in to religion and to my career and to my
husband and to my family, and you keep leaning in where you need to lean
in. And let’s support each other in that venture – as fellow Jews,
fellow women, and fellow leaners-in.