Lean In – Sheryl Sandberg’s book

A friend shared this book with me, and I ended up highlighting so much of it.

Although I don’t agree with or subscribe to everything she says, a LOT of it resonated. Perhaps this is because, all my life, from childhood onwards, I’ve been brought up to believe that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

So I could identify with chunks of it, since that was the environment Sandberg was nurtured in as well.

A key premise of her book is that women are ‘leaning back’ very early on the ‘race’, even though they start as equally qualified as men, fresh out of school. Thus her exhortation to ‘lean in’, is not so much as to be competitive beyond our natural desire, but rather to not discount our own abilities and efforts right from the get-go.

Here are some parts that leapt out at me.

In comparison to their male counterparts, highly trained women are scaling back and dropping out of the workforce in high numbers. In turn, these diverging percentages teach institutions and mentors to invest more in men, who are statistically more likely to stay.

This made me think of the gender quotas for medicine. Whilst we may cry foul, it is true that a number of my friends who have been medically trained, to no little cost to the state, have chosen to go on part-time or to stay home altogether as their children’s primary care-giver. I totally understand this decision, and don’t think it’s a bad one at all, but I can see how this serves to perpetuate the gender bias in allocating places in medical school, since those decisions are made on a pure dollars-and-cents basis.

Whilst our generation was raised in an era of increasing equality,

…the workplace did not evolve to give us the flexibility we needed to fulfill our responsibilities at home… Girls growing up today are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.

Women are usually not thinking about ‘having it all’. More of them are worried about losing it all – their jobs, their children’s health, their families’ financial stability… For many men, the assumption is that they can have both a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life. For many women, the assumption is that trying to do both is difficult at best and impossible at worst. They are surrounded by headlines that they cannot be committed to both. They are told over and over again that they will have to choose, because if they try to do it all, they will be harried and unhappy.

Fear is at the root of the barriers that women face. The trinity of fear includes: the fear of being a bad wife/mother/daughter.

And some career advice for women:

The nagging voice at the back of my head reminds me (i.e. Sandberg), “Don’t flaunt your success, or even let people know about your success. If you do, people won’t like you.”

Her advice is that this is not necessary, and that more women should accept that whilst they should continue to act communally and professionally, the need to be liked is usually over-rated, and women tend to over-compensate in that.

And this observation was indeed telling:

When a couple announces that they are expecting a baby, everyone says “Congratulations!” to the man, and “Congratulations! What are you planning to do about work?” to the women. The assumption is that raising a child is almost solely a woman’s responsibility.

I know I myself have said that. So this has made me question why I do, and to reflect on whether this is a bias equally deeply ingrained in my own mind, and how I can change this, perhaps into asking “What are you and your hubby considering in terms of childcare?” perhaps.

Overall, her advice is:

Anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open. Don’t enter the workforce already planning for the exit. Don’t put on the brakes when you’re barely starting. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that, when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.

I thought that was good advice for all young women just starting out in the workforce. By constantly giving the impression that we are bound to choose backing out of the workforce once we start families, it makes it harder for all women to get equal opportunities, and a fair amount of nurturing in the workforce. Some women might not have a chance to start families. If every woman stepped on the gas from the get-go, then these women who wish to soar will probably have a better chance at it.

One aspect that I am equally passionate about, and have tried to advocate for at every opportunity, is this:

I feel strongly that when a mother stays at home, her time during the day should be considered real work – because it is. Raising children is at least as stressful and demanding as a paying job.

I do think that more can be done to ease the burden on single-income families, and enhance the savings of home-makers who do not have access to incomes and employer contributions towards their retirement.

It is unfair that mothers are frequently expected to work long into the night, while fathers who work outside the home get the chance to relax once they return home. When the father is home, he should be involved in at least half the childcare and housework. True partnership in the home also sets the stage for the next generation.

I do believe that involved fathers make for happier families, not just happier mothers. As a role model to their sons, and to their daughters (as reference for their quest for spouses in future), involved fathers are crucial to the health of the family as a basic building block to society.

Being economics-trained, this analogy made me chuckle:

The very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics and common sense. The antiquated rhetoric of “having it all” disregards the basis of every economic relationship: the idea of trade-offs. All of us are dealing with the constrained optimisation that is life, attempting to maximise our utility based on parameters like career, kids, relationships, etc., doing our best to allocate the resource of time. Due to the scarcity of this resource, therefore, none of us can ‘have it all,’ and those who claim to are most likely lying.

Employed mothers and fathers both struggle with multiple responsibilities, but mothers also have to endure the rude questions and accusatory looks that remind us that we’re short-changing both our jobs and our children. Like me, most women I know do a great job worrying that we don’t measure up.

We compare our efforts at work to those of our male colleagues who have far fewer responsibilities at home. Then we compare our efforts at home to those of mothers who dedicate themselves solely to their families. Outsiders reminding us that we must be struggling just add bitter icing to an already soggy cake.

Sandberg says that she took comfort in what convinces her the most – hard data and grounded research. A study by US child development experts, surveying 1000 children over 15 years concluded the following in 2006:

Parental behavioural factors – including fathers who are responsive and positive, mothers who favour “self-directed child behaviour”, and parents with emotional intimacy in their marriages – influence a child’s development 2-3 times more than any form of child care. Exclusive maternal care was not related to better or worse outcomes for children.

Sandberg adds that “whilst children need parental involvement, care and love, parents who work outside the home are still capable of giving their children a loving and secure childhood.” Given first hand empirical evidence, I guess I do agree. I believe that there are definitely merits to having a mother exclusively care for her children, but I guess what it suggests here is that children who do not have access to that, can still grow up thriving.

It is interesting that the book mentions that we talk about this as though we are concerned that our choices could cause problems for the children, but actually it can be mainly an issue concerning the mum. Which reminds me of how friends often say, “we are doing this (staying home) also for ourselves, because this is what I want, and it’s not just for our children”.

Ultimately, I guess every mum, regardless of what we have chosen, need not constantly question herself and riddle herself with guilt about the “what ifs”.

When I remember that no one can do it all and identify my real priorities at home and at work, I feel better, and I am more productive in the office, and probably a better mother as well. The right question is not “Can I do it all?” but “Can I do what is most important for me and my family?” The aim is to have children who are happy and thriving. Having perfect cupcakes is purely optional.

If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that it is making the best choices we can… and accepting them.

[Getting equal opportunities] was supposed to make us free – to give us not only choices but the ability to make these choices without constantly feeling that we’d somehow gotten it wrong.

My greatest hope is that my son and daughter will be able to choose what to do with their lives without external or internal obstacles slowing them down or making them question their choices.

I thought this book was a very honest account of Sandberg’s own fears and hurts as a working mother, glamorous though her role may currently be.

Her treatise is for all women to lean in, such that future generations will continue having access to the choices that we have, on an even more equitable basis.

Whether you’re a mum who has temporarily stopped work to prioritise care for your child, or a working mum trying to juggle it all, or a full-time homemaker, we are all in this together.

As the book says “let us start by validating one another”. We should be respectful of whatever choices our friends have made. Only then can we create a better world for the next generation, with truly thriving families.



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