It’s funny how words are re-framed by cultural context, how a once ordinary verb takes on a life of its own, a jolt of multiple meanings – as a matter of contemporary conversation – and a book.
One year ago, those words would have conjured a charming albeit old-fashioned game of hokey pokey – put your left foot in, take your right foot out – and while there’s no leaning expressly mentioned, I imagine an inclined engagement in hopping, circling, and giggling.
Then there’s kissing, a diversion of another sort. After all, don’t we explicitly “lean in” for a meeting of the mouths on the doorstep, not to mention the bedroom threshold?
I certainly wouldn’t have expected a discussion on women and careers – more specifically – women pouring all their energies and focus into successfully going after what they want in the workplace.
And now, so it seems, the men are at it, too. At least, The New York Times is giving us what I think of as “mascu-lean” – the male version of a phenomenon that I thought was traditionally male – the very point of Sheryl Sandberg’s position that women need to do what men have typically done – in our own way, of course.
Men Helping Women “Lean In” is Good Business
However, in this case, we aren’t talking about men pouring it on for themselves, but rather, realizing that a greater representation of women in organizational roles and at higher levels is good for business.
Men are supporting, and in some cases, actively taking steps to assist the process of women leaning in.
In “Page by Page, Men Are Stepping Into Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Circle,” which appears in a recent Style section column, one New York financier is quoted as saying:
“… I thought it was crazy that there aren’t more women in finance,” Mr. Dominick said recently at a Midtown restaurant. “I look around at my team of seven people, and one of them is a woman. That is not the right ratio. How do I fix that?”
Referencing “Lean In” and his response to having read it, another executive has this to say:
“I’m convinced by both Sheryl and the data of the benefits of having gender balance on a leadership team.”
The article points out the growing influence of Ms. Sandberg’s words:
Despite its subtitle, “Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” and its being cataloged in Amazon’s “Women & Business” category, the book, which has been perched on the best-seller list since it was published in March, is finding a significant number of male champions, some in high places.
The article includes additional references to well-known organizations and their involvement in Lean In Circles.
What About the Social Messages in Subtext?
Personally, I’m delighted if an increasing number of men are explicitly looking to hire and promote from among the many highly qualified women in this country. Awareness is an excellent step, and individual commitment – and action – are essential.
But I wonder about the many messages in Ms. Sandberg’s book that address the way we raise our daughters, and indirectly (as I am the mother of sons), how we might raise our sons to fully respect the girls they grow up with. We must begin to examine the way we subtly and not so subtly hold girls back.
Specifically, I’m talking about tying confidence and approval to appearance. I’m talking about encouraging a child’s curiosity regardless of sex. I’m talking about acknowledging the importance of speaking up, and not viewing the girl who does so as bossy, whereas the boy is self-assured or decisive.
The Importance of Institutional Change
Leaning in is one thing, but Ms. Sandberg also mentions institutional change, something which we must understand is critical.
We cannot forget that once she becomes a mother, a woman’s ability to focus on career is highly dependent on support systems – family, childcare, healthcare, education. And, on dollars and cents.
As for women in leadership roles, we cannot negate the critical nature of motherhood and its impacts so lucidly explained by Catherine Wood in “Want to be a Business Leader? Don’t Let Mommy Math Do You In,” at Women’s Voices for Change.
… exhausted in the morning after the baby has kept them up all night… the higher-income earner [usually male] starts the discussion somewhat like this: “Honey, commissions have been cut in half, and now the nanny, the housekeeper, the transportation, and your wardrobe are costing more than you make . . . Does this make any sense?” In that immediate situation, of course, the mother’s ambition to keep aiming for a top position seems to make no financial sense.
Gender Roles: Cultural Transformation is Multifaceted
I don’t expect cultural transformation to happen quickly; realistically, it takes generations. Yet the fact that for so many women, working for pay doesn’t pay – and at all levels – is clearly a deterrent we must address.
That men are viewing women as essential resources and “good business” is good news. The more these same men and a growing number of others can influence their daughters and sons, their nieces and nephews, and encourage curiosity, debate, and a diversity of interests in both sexes, the better.
But we cannot think this is all it takes. We cannot separate the realities of families with children from the gender composition of our workplaces, our boardrooms, or our governing bodies.