Book Recommendation: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Update: A friend shared this NYT profile of formerly high-powered women who dropped out of the workforce to be a full-time mother (with volunteer work at the children’s school and the community of course).

While shopping for a gift for a close friend whom I often discuss feminist issues with, I came across Lean In. I first heard of Sheryl Sandberg from a Ted Talk in which she discussed why there is a paucity of women leaders.

Lean In Cover

In the introduction of the book the author acknowledged that while institutional settings are important, her goal was to focus on the individual level instead, since it allowed the author to build from her experience and observations. Most of the anecdotes and recollections lends credence to observations in the sociological literature, especially those that examines gender roles and how it limits  the advancement of women in their career.

Throughout the book, the author recounts interactions which she thinks gender roles have inhibited career advancement, and prescribes solutions such as “sitting at the table” (which is a way of saying having one’s presence felt), and “don’t leave until you have to leave.” In offering advice on how to maneuver the public-private life distinction, which had traditionally delegated a lot of caretaking/familial responsibilities to women, the author encourages men to play a more active role in the household, and advocates egalitarian arrangements in household chores. Moreover, men are acquainted with the role they can play as colleagues in the workplace  in removing the disadvantage that restricts the choice women can make in their careers – restrictions that are due to the incongruity of the gender role that women are conditioned to assume, and the occupational role which rewards “professionals” rid of familial responsibilities(or those who are good at offloading them, typically to the spouse).

It is the latter, I think, that serves as an imposing glass ceiling in the career advancement of women. It is not so much an issue of women participation in the workforce, women have  made up a huge fraction of the workforce since the post-war era. Rather, the issue lies in the choice that women have had to make when it comes to their career in navigating precariously in their dual roles, firstly as caregivers and “nurturers” and secondly as the committed modern “professional.”

I find the idea of “caretakers” and “nurturers” being the natural domain of women to be arcane and ludicrous. As the author pointed out, what was ingrained by invoking biological evolution, such as our propensity to favour fatty and sugary food(a remnant of a period where food was scarce) can be disciplined and adapted to our modern context, where we have a surfeit of (bad) food. Similarly, it does not stand to reason how child rearing should be exclusively a role reserved for women, for men can and should play their part. If anything, technology like breast pumps override biological constraints and enables men to share in the care taking of children.

As opposed to men, women seem to face an additional criterion in the evaluation metric of a modern professional, which is tied to the gender role expected of a wife and a mother. The common phrase evoked is “you just can’t have it all.” This brings to mind the derision that was showered on Marissa Myers, the CEO of Yahoo! who promised to work well into induction, and was reported to have worked from the hospital after giving birth. In balancing career and familial responsibilities, women risk being morally judged for the weighting schemes that were chosen. Tilt too much towards one’s career, and one is invariably labeled as a bad mother who sacrifices the well-being of the children for her career. Tilt too much towards one’s family, and one is presumed to be “not committed” to one’s career. What discussions on this issue often fail to recognise is the confounding extrapolation of one’s thought process from a chosen action because of individual preferences; or because an identification with a group and is subject to systematic social and political happenstance (A did this because it makes sense to A as an individual; or A did this because A belongs in the group of vowels in the universe of alphabets).

It is unfair, immoral even to decry that women who chose to be stay at home mothers (which is noble and taxing) to have betrayed the feminist movement. After all,I do not think the feminist movement is meant to subsume an individual’s utility maximising choice over the ideal view of the modern women. However, when women are forced to make a choice in her career because the environment is designed for a modern committed (read:single individuals, or those who could offload family commitment) professional, this becomes an issue of social justice.

This view is best illustrated by a chapter in SuperFreakonomics, where the authors cited a paper about the gender pay gap. I do not have a copy at hand with me at the moment, but from my recollection it was argued that once you control for the finance courses taken by a group of MBA holders, the wage gap attributed to gender differences disappears. (Technically this is an IV regression, where you use the “finance” related course as an individual variable, presumably after checking for the exclusion restriction, and then run your second stage OLS). Moreover, it is noted that women tend to prefer the less-compensated “in-house” job. The intuition would be that since men disproportionately specialise in Finance, they wound up taking the better compensated jobs. Beyond this effect, there is no gender related effects.

What such an assessment ignores is what constraints women to systematically avoid Finance related courses, and also to choose “in-house” positions. Might sociologists offer better explanations, in that this is a result of the balancing act of conforming to gender roles and the constraints that only women exclusively face? Moreover in terms of the econometrics, IVs require one to swear by their model and convince readers that the model is fully specified. Not only is finite sample bias an issue, weak instruments exaggerates the bias, and a healthy skeptic should seriously entertain the possibility that the cited point estimates are blemished by weak instruments.

Having enumerated what I think are good advice both for women and men (who want to play a role as colleagues and partners), I think the question to Ms Sandberg inevitably escalates to the institutional level. I heard that Yahoo! is renovating its office to allow their CEO to bring her child to work, but I wonder if the facility extends to other employees? I have also heard being able to hire a nanny or have access to child-care in the work place would solve the issue, and again, is the option economically feasible to the average worker? Now, the title of the book “Lean-In” is partially in reference to the invitation for men to join in the efforts to correct one of the most entrenched social justice issue we face, and it is also an extension to those who set the tone of their organisations to do their part.

How then do new entrants to the labour force make known that this an important issue in the work place? One of the suggestions in the book is that in negotiating, women should phrase this issue collectively, using “we” instead of “I.” Yet, the issue has not been discussed from the perspective of men (even though they are encouraged to be more active in the family and to “lean-in”). I do hope the book is getting attention and a committed enthusiasm from those who are in a position to set the tone and culture of an organisation. Entrants to the labour force would find it slightly embarassing to express themselves, especially since they have yet to have found their partners. (Readers of the book will identify a similar setting in a book, when a single colleague was pre-optimising and deciding their career path in anticipation of having a child, even though the individual has yet to have found a partner at that point!).


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