Leaning In: A Post on International Women's Day

lean1-640x426 Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook has a new book out for women leaders called Lean In. It's featured on the cover of Time, and Andrew Sullivan has had some good discussion about it here, here and here.

In Sandberg's view, women are sabotaging themselves. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes, and the result is that “men still run the world.” Ms. Sandberg wants to take women through a collective self-awareness exercise. In her book, she urges them to absorb the social science showing they are judged more harshly and paid less than men; resist slowing down in mere anticipation of having children; insist that their husbands split housework equally; draft short- and long-term career plans; and join a “Lean In Circle,” which is half business school and half book club.

The issues of women in leadership, especially in the workplace, are so complicated that I feel overwhelmed even starting to write this post. There's so much to say.

It's personal: some women feel resentful that the lion's share (lioness's share?) of domestic work still falls to women, and are working to change this. Others don't feel called to climb the career ladder even if you offer them equal footing on it. Still others would like to stay home with children, or pursue a more leisurely career trajectory, but can't for economic reasons---they may be the sole breadwinner, or their family depends on two full-time incomes.

It's political: I love Sandberg's Lean In initiative. We need to stop sabotaging ourselves and our sisters. But let's also be honest and admit that there are still structural barriers for women. The Time article reports that the United States's maternity leave policies rival those of Papua New Guinea, "a country that still has actual cannibals." My dad gave me a T-shirt when I was a teenager that said, "A woman must work twice as hard as a man to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult." That was some thirty years ago, and it's still true.

It's cultural: women who are competitive, who have strong personalities and negotiating skills, are viewed negatively in comparison to their male colleagues with the same attributes. The Time article quotes a woman who interviewed for an executive job and did not get it. When she asked for feedback on how she might improve her chances, she was told, "You could have smiled more."

Oooh, you should see the smile on my face right now

And it's ecclesiological (if you're talking about church leadership). There is still a tremendous gender gap in ministry. By and large, women are the associate pastors and solo pastors. Men are the tall-steeple preachers. (Men of my generation are very sad about this, and they lament it---sincerely, I believe---but will gladly move into those prestigious and well-paying positions even as they tilt their heads sympathetically and decry the patriarchy.)

Many have pointed out that Sandberg frames the issue from a place of obvious economic privilege. For a woman to "lean in," she has to have the support and means to outsource a lot of the household tasks. That's just not possible for a big swath of the population. Very true. Let's acknowledge that, while also giving her the dignity of addressing the audience she wants to address.

A couple additional things come to mind as I read the buzz around the book:

Your partner matters. Sandberg argues that your choice of partner/spouse is one of the most important career decisions you'll ever make. This is absolutely, positively true. I could not fulfill this dual vocation of pastor and writer/speaker without a supportive spouse who believes in me and the work I do. Seriously. (A friend of mine quoted the Christian Century article that reviews my book with Rachel Held Evans's A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It says "Robert is a much more active presence... Evans tells us that she has an egalitarian marriage; Dana shows us what this look like." My friend added, "Robert drops the mic - boom." Dang straight!)

Leaning in is an internal issue and an external one. It seems that there are two issues at play: the way in which we do the work we do, and the speed with which we advance in our careers. Although they are related, I think it helps to separate them. I know women who genuinely enjoy being home with their children, perhaps while working part-time, and do not want to lean into a promotion or a higher powered position. More power to them. But they still need to lean in emotionally, with confidence, not shrinking or minimizing. In order for us to start changing the culture that says that an assertive woman is a domineering b****, everyone needs to lean in. They need to model assertiveness and competence, whether on the PTA, in part-time ministry, as volunteers, or wherever.

I recently accepted the role of co-chair of the NEXT Church. That was a leaning-in moment, even though it doesn't land me a fatter paycheck. (Interesting fun fact: the two co-chairs of NEXT and its director are all women.)

And in a related point:

Meaningful work isn't always the same as paid work. I need to say this carefully, because too often women leave money on the proverbial table, either by not negotiating or by not going for higher-paying opportunities. But someone recently said to me, "You seem to have set up your life in order to do the work that you care about most." This stopped me in my tracks, because while I'd never thought about it that way, it's true. I don't serve a large church; I don't feel called to that. I like being home most evenings. Driving the preschool carpool and eavesdropping on two five-year-old boys is a delight I wouldn't trade for much of anything. And to be blunt, in the economy of our household, it makes way more sense for the IT professional working for the cyber-security company to lean in to traditional ideas of advancement.

But I get to write and be read. I get to speak to congregations and groups. I get to serve on the board of a fledgling national organization. And I get to serve a local congregation. None of that pays a lot of dough---some of it doesn't pay anything. But it's meaningful, significant work. And maybe when my kids are older, this work will lead to something that pays more; I don't know.

Discuss...

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Image source: Colossal