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Cirque de l’Égalité: In Defense of Lean In

Devon VP, Angela Trombatore's perspective, the last in a series of posts exploring and responding to Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In.

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In my imaginary feminist utopia, women aren’t told that their personal life choices impact expectations for other women (because they wouldn’t). World leaders are equally criticized and praised for their politics and actions, rather than their hair accessories. The women and men who chose to work at home as full time parents are characterized as successful leaders too.  But this is reality; none of these things are universally true. And I pity anyone that attempts to detangle American (much less global) inequity in just a few hundred pages – including leadership lessons poster-child of the hour, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg.

Sandberg’s book, Lean In:  Women, Work and the Will to Lead, has garnered a three-ring circus of support and criticism – some of which can be read on our blog – because she encourages women to help address workplace leadership disparities by facing fears and owning achievement.

Embracing Sandberg’s message, I’ll toot my own horn.  For me, success means using the skills that make me uniquely valuable – at home, work, and elsewhere – every single day. I am successful. Tell me, how many awesome publicist /group fitness instructor/ accessory designer / thespians do you know who married, bought a house, earned a VP title and decided a DIY powder room remodeling was a good idea, all before turning 31?  Okay, maybe there are a few of us.

I make decisions that matter to me.  Every project I work on better be something I’m proud of. When my favorite gym class was cancelled, I became a certified instructor. Fear of rejection never stops me from auditioning for a production. It’s not balancing; it’s filling life with good because life is bound to deliver some bad.  I know I do it well, but still remember feeling uneasy the first time LinkedIn recommended I join a Women Executives group.

Sandberg’s message is not a declaration that every woman has an obligation to “man up,” or sacrifice family for career. She calls on women to be more confident and take action, and on everyone to create opportunities that recognize the individual for their unique value and needs to foster greater equality.

Some women are angry because they’re already leaning in; and unless they are members of Cirque du Soleil, they can only lean in so far before environmental support and luck are the determining factors for success. Others are angry because they’ve made family their careers and read this as criticism. I understand, really. Sandberg’s advice might not be relevant for you, but her message could be critical for those who struggle to accept their strengths and brilliance, even every now and then.

Those women exist, too. They are smart, innovative and creative, but uncomfortable with success. Art, entertainment, family, colleagues, teachers, some feminists, other feminists and all anti-feminists set contradictory and unrealistic standards for what it means to “be a woman.” They don’t realize the difference between humility and self-deprecation.  They downplay. They qualify. They self-sabotage and fade into the background, giving up before they really want to. They’re real, and they might be the next great leaders because they were inspired by a few hundred pages.

Let’s cut Sandberg some slack. Patriarchy is an old-as-dirt, complex construct, and it’s unfair to expect one philosophy to dissect and solve all of its problems. It’s okay for a successful woman to share her leadership advice with the women (and men) to whom it speaks. Successful men do it every day without parting the Red Sea. Of course Lean In doesn’t exist in a vacuum: there are issues of privilege and differences in the ways men and women are treated that make this a tight rope walk. Perhaps the more empowering point is that there are differences between women and women.