Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lean In: Liberation for the 1%

Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has reached the top of the best seller list.  If a book told men how to climb the corporate ladder, everyone would see that it is adjusting them to the status quo, but Sandberg's book tells women how to climb the corporate ladder, so it is being touted as a progressive challenge to the status quo.  One reviewer wrote in the New York Times:
A landmark manifesto . . . Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique . . . Sandberg addresses 21st-century issues that never entered Betty Friedan’s wildest dreams . . . Lean In will be an influential book. . . . it will encourage . . . women to persevere in their professional lives.
In reality, Sandberg's advice might help the 1% of all workers who are ambitious to climb to the highest ranks of their corporations.

Her own qualifications point to the limitations of her approach.  She is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and she is on Fortune magazine's list of the 50 most powerful women in business.

She is telling us to play a zero-sum game.  No matter how hard you work, only 50 people are going to get on that list of 50 most powerful women in business. No matter how hard you work, your company is only going to have one CEO and one COO.

To the 99% of Facebook employees who are not corporate climbers, it does not matter whether the CEO and COO are men or women.  Tech companies are known for overworking their employees, and most of the accountants, programmers, and others who Sandberg manages are more interested in having some free time to live their lives and to spend with their families than they are in Sandberg's advice about how to climb to the top of the organization.

Another reviewer in the New York Times got it right when she said:
"her narrative is what corporate America wants to hear. For both the women who have made it and the men who work with them, it is cheaper and more comfortable to believe that what they need to do is simply urge younger women to be more like them, to think differently and negotiate more effectively, rather than make major changes in the way their companies work. Young women might be much more willing to lean in if they saw better models and possibilities of fitting work and life together: ways of slowing down for a while but still staying on a long-term promotion track; of getting work done on their own time rather than according to a fixed schedule; of being affirmed daily in their roles both as parents and as professionals."
Sandberg does not discuss the sort of changes that could give employees better work-life balance and more satisfying lives.

Virtually none of the reviewers criticize Sandberg's unstated assumption that the goal of life is to climb the corporate ladder, in order to get as much money and power for yourself as possible.  If this passes for liberation in the current intellectual climate, then we need to change that climate.

As Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, she is one of the people who are responsible for its work-time policies, and she does not seem to have done anything to liberate its employees from overwork.  If Simon Lagree had been a woman, he would still have been a slave driver.