I had to read it to see what all of the hype was about. How could I not, when the book was being compared to seminal feminist works from decades ago? So I did.
Personally, my reaction was a mixture of repulsion and anxiety. Statistic by statistic, Sandberg poked at the remains of an ambition I had left to smoldering a long time ago. An ambition I reigned in when other values won out. You see, all throughout college, I waged a bitter internal war as I attempted to settle on a system of values that would determine at least the initial direction of my life, a battle between values that are respected and values that are not respected. Values that result in praise and admiration and those that result in life choices that would leave me feeling compelled to explain the consideration that led to them, to make it clear that choice not chance had led to my lack of personal success.
As a result, I chose to work at a small, very low paying homeschool tutorial right out of college, rather than taking an academic fast track to a PhD (here I go explaining). I loved my work there, so I stayed, beyond what would have been wise strategically if I had hoped to pursue a career. I believed that time to devote to forming friendships, to pursuing volunteer work and activities that enriched my life was more important than positing myself towards success. When the tutorial program closed, though, I faced the choice again. Without an advanced degree or applicable experience, I sought work where I could find it, and I found myself buffeted around in the clerical world.
My days behind various administrative desks included more time lethargically browsing web sites and making purchases online than opportunities to contribute or be productive. I languished. And, I wondered, why did I make these choices? Should I work double time to pursue a new career or go to grad school? These questions actually led me here to begin authoring this blog. I wondered if they were individual characteristics that led me to these choices or whether it had to do with the effect of socialization, if somehow gender had a hand in my decision-making.
Reading the book again stirred up that ideological discontent. Did I make the right choice? I had the potential to be successful, to contribute, to make an impact, why did I “lean back”? Was it because of the phenomena Sandberg describes? And yet, I had inklings as well that Sandberg’s discussion had some flaws, that her discussion was based on some assumptions that I did not necessarily believe were true. I laid the beginnings of a framework for these thoughts in my post from last year.
My thoughts and feelings were still muddled, and I was in the process of working through them when I stumbled on this article from the Harvard Business Review. In it, James Allworth articulates that one particular assumption of Sheryl’s, an assumption that forms the basis for her argument, also the assumption that had been like a splinter in my brain.
Sandberg operates under the assumption that the system itself (not the discriminatory/corrupt aspects of the system -which we all know exist – but rather the ideology of the system) is not flawed. Women have not achieved success in this system because there has been a lack of opportunities, yes, but also because women have not seized the opportunities that have existed. And yet, what has the ideology of the system brought us? It, like all things under the sun, has resulted in a mixture of good and bad. And yet, I would venture to say that it is generally oppressive, it generally seems to concrete socioeconomic divisions and exaggerate inequities within society and within societies. Furthermore, it has not resulted in cultural contentment. And, finally, the survey makers are beginning to realize that actually GNP has less to do with happiness than we had thought, The economists behind the U.N. report say our slavish dependence on Gross National Product (GNP) as an indicator of progress has got to stop. “GNP by itself does not promote happiness,” development economist Jeffrey Sachs told the U.N. conference, according to the Washington Post. “The U.S. has had a three time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn’t budged. Other countries have pursued other policies and achieved much greater gains of happiness, even at much lower levels of per capita income.”
To sum it up, the system has not been the panacea we hoped it would be.
So, why do we encourage women to blindly throw themselves into a system that is deeply and ideologically flawed? Why do I still feel guilty, lazy, or that I am not reaching my “full potential” for not joining in the rat race? Or, worse, that my lack of ambition to achieve personal / financial success has anything to do with me being a woman? Could it be that the potential to be truly content and fulfilled, fully realized as a human being, means living by an entirely different set of values?
Allworth’s article about sums it up for me. We don’t need to just lean in, we need to reconsider, first, what exactly we are leaning in to.