May 232013

Book Not-So-Short: Not Just for Women

Book Not-So-Short:  Not Just for Women

At the request of the women in our Professional Services team, I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and while it may seem like dancing the meringue in a minefield for a male CEO to blog about it, I think it’s an important enough topic to give it a shot.  So here goes.

First, given the minefield potential, let me issue a few caveats up front.  These are deep, ages old, complex, societal issues and behaviors we’re talking about here.  There is no quick answer to anything.  There is no universal answer to anything.  Men don’t have the same perspective as women and can come across as observers (which in some respects, they are).  Working moms don’t have the same perspective as stay-at-home moms, or as single women.  We try to be good about all these issues at Return Path, but I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface.  </caveats>

Perhaps most important, my overall take on the book is that it’s a very good business book that everyone should read – not just women.  I have a strong reaction to the reactions I’ve read and heard about the book – mostly from women dismissing the book because Sandberg has immense financial resources, so how could she possibly know the plight of the ordinary mom, and how could she understand what it is like to be a stay-at-home mom?  That reaction is to dismiss the dismissals!  I found the book to be very broadly applicable.  Of course things about life with a two-working parent family are easier if you have more money.  But that’s completely not the point of the book.  And Sandberg doesn’t once criticize stay-at-home moms for that choice – in fact, she acknowledges feelings of guilt and inferiority around them and admiration for the work they do that benefits all families and kids, not just their own.

Here are a few of the biggest areas of thinking, AHA, or questioning, that the book gave me:

  • One of Sandberg’s underlying points is that the world would be a better place with more women in leadership positions, so that’s an important goal.  It’s interesting that few enough of our leaders are women, that it’s hard for me to draw that same conclusion, but it makes sense to me on the surface, and there’s some research about management teams and boards to back it up.  As far as I can tell, the world has yet to see a brutal female dictator.  Or a fair share of political or corporate scandals caused by women.  There are definitely some horror stories of “tough boss” women, but probably no more than “tough boss” men.  It’s interesting to note that in our society, leadership roles seem to be prized for their power and monetary reward, so even if the world wouldn’t be a better place with more female leaders, it would certainly be a more fair place along those two dimensions
  • I felt that a bunch of Sandberg’s points about women were more generalizations about certain personality types which can be inherent in men and women.  Maybe they’re more prevalent in women, even much more, but some are issues for some men as well.  For example, her general point about women not speaking up even if they have something to say.  I have seen this trait in women as well as more introverted men.  As a leader, I work hard to draw comments out of people who look like they have something to say in a meeting but aren’t speaking up.  This is something that leaders need to pay close attention to across the board so that they hear all the voices around their tables.  Same goes for some of the fears she enumerates.  Many male leaders I know, myself included at times, have the “fear of being found out as a fraud” thought.  Same goes for the “desire to be liked by everyone” holding people back – that’s not gender specific, either.  All that said, if these traits are much more prevalent in women, and they are traits that drive attainment of leadership roles, well, you get the point
  • The fact that women earn 77 cents on the dollar in equivalent jobs for men is appalling.  I’ve asked our People Team to do a study of this by level, factoring in experience and tenure, to make sure we don’t have that bias at Return Path.  I know for sure we don’t at the leadership level.  And I sure as heck hope we don’t anywhere in the organization.  We are also about to launch an Unconscious Bias training program, which should be interesting
  • Sandberg made a really interesting point that most of the women who don’t work are either on the low end or high end of the income spectrum.  Her point about the low end really resonated with me – that women who don’t earn a lot stop working if their salaries only barely cover childcare costs.  However, she argues that that’s a very short term view, and that staying in the workforce means your salary will escalate over time, while childcare costs stay relatively flat.  This is compounded by the fact that women who lean back early in their careers simply because they are anticipating someday having children are earning less than they should be earning when they do finally have children.
  • The other end of the income spectrum also made sense once I parsed through it – why do women whose husbands make a lot of money (most of whom make a lot of money as well) decide to off-ramp?  Sandberg’s point about the “Leadership ambition gap” is interesting, and her example of running a marathon with the spectators screaming “you know you don’t have to do this” as opposed to “you’ve got this” is really vivid.  See two bullets down for more on this one.  But it might not be straight-up Leadership Ambition Gap so much as a recognition that some of the high-earning jobs out there are so demanding that having two of them in the household would be a nightmare (noting that Dave and Sheryl seem to have figured some of that out), or that moms don’t want to miss out on that much of their children’s lives.  They want to be there…and they can afford to.  Another related topic that I wish Sandberg had covered in more depth is the path of moms who off-ramp, then re-on-ramp once their youngest children are in school, whether into the career they left or a different one.  That would be an interesting topic on many fronts
  • Societal influences must matter.  The facts that, in 2011 – Gymboree manufactured onesies that say “smart like Daddy” and “pretty like Mommy,” and that JC Penney teenage girl t-shirts say “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me” are more than a little troublesome on the surface (unless Gymboree also produces “handsome like Daddy” and “wicked smart like Mommy,” which somehow I doubt).  The fact that women do worse on math and science tests when they have to identify their gender at the top of the test is surprising and shocking
  • I am really fortunate that Mariquita only works part time, and it’s unclear to me how our lives would work if we both worked full time, especially given my extremely heavy travel schedule, though I am sure we’d figure it out.  And there’s no way that I carry 50% of the burden of household responsibilities.  Maybe 20-25% at best.  But I was struck by Sandberg’s comments (I am sure true) that in two-working-parent families, women still carry the preponderance of household responsibilities on their shoulders.  I totally don’t get this.  If you both work, how can you not be equal partners at home?  A quick mental survey of a couple of the two-working-parent families we know would indicate that the parents split household responsibilities somewhat evenly, though you can never know this from the outside.  This should be a no brainer.  Sandberg’s point that men need to “lean into their families” is spot on in these cases for sure
  • On a related note, Sandberg’s comment that “as women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home…moms can be controlling and critical…if he’s forced to do things her way, pretty soon she’ll be doing them herself” made me smile.  I have definitely seen this “learned helplessness” on the home front with dads quite a bit over the years
  • One really good point Sandberg makes is that younger employees who don’t have kids should be allowed to have a life outside of work just as much as women who do have kids.  And that she pays people for the quality and quantity of their output, not their hours.  These are principles that match our values and philosophy at Return Path 100%
  • Probably the most startling moment in the book for me – and I suspect many other men – was Sandberg’s vignette about the young woman at Facebook who was starting to “lean back” because she might someday have a family – before she was even dating anyone!  This really gave me a lot of pause.  If widespread (and I assume it is), there are clearly societal forces at work that we need to do more to help women early in their careers overcome, if they want to overcome them
  • Sandberg’s point that a rich and fulfilling career “is a Jungle Gym, not a Ladder” is spot on, but this is true for men as well as women.  It matches our philosophy of Scaling Horizontally perfectly
  • Another very poignant moment in the book was when Sandberg talked about how she herself had shown bias against women in terms of who she called on in meetings or lectures during Q&A.  Again, lots of pause for me.  If female leaders have the same societal bias against women, that’s a sign that we all have real work in front of us to help level the playing field around giving women air time.  Similarly, her example of the Heidi/Howard study was fascinating around how women with the same characteristics are perceived differently by both male and female co-workers gives me pause (for the record, I know the Heidi in question, and I like her!).  Likewise, the fact that female leaders are often given unflattering nicknames like “The Iron Lady” – you’d never see something like that for a man in the same position.  At least Thatcher wore the name as a badge of honor

I hope this post doesn’t end up as a no-win piece of writing where all I do is touch a few nerves and inspire no ongoing dialog.  “Let’s start talking about it,” the ending theme of the book, is a great way to end this post as well.  As with all tough issues, articulating the problem is the first step toward solving it.  Women need to allow men (as long as the men are open-minded, of course!) to think what they think, say what they think in a safe space, and blunder through their own learnings without feeling threatened.  And men need to be comfortable having conversations about topics like these if the paradigmatic relationship between women and leadership is going to continue to shift instead of avoiding the topic or just calling in HR.

Hopefully this blog post is one step towards that at my company.  Return Path colleagues – feel free to comment on the blog or via email and share stories of how we’ve either helped you or held you back!  But overall, I’m glad I read this book, and I’d encourage anyone and everyone to read it.

  • Cathy

    Love this post – thank you so much for writing it. We've had a lot of really good dialog around the office about the book. I agree with all your points.

    On a personal note – when my kids were young, my husband (now ex-) stayed home with the kids. He did come across some biases against this, which impacted him & the kids (some moms not letting kids come over on their own, attending 'mommy & me' classes…). AND, we didn't share the housework / child-rearing 50/50. The kids were my responsibility on evenings & weekend, and I probably did 50% of the housework. [which probably led to him being the ex-:)]

    • Matt Blumberg

      There’s no question that two-working-parent families and dad-stays-at-home families run into more challenges around both societal norms and expectations of home responsibilities.  Let’s keep the dialog going!

  • Margaret Farmakis

    Thanks for reading this Matt! I've also recommended it to the men on the Professional Services team. As you note, both men and women can get a lot from the book in terms of career advice, tips for navigating the corporate "jungle gym" and how to better balance work and family. One of my favorite chapters in the book was about mentoring – I thought she had some great advice for women looking for mentors and for how to manage mentor/mentee relationships, for those that have them. I also really identified with her comment about not wanting to be viewed as a "feminist" and how she came to terms with that. When I picked up the book, I actually removed the jacket cover when I read it in public because I didn't want to be judged for reading a book about female leadership. About half-way through I decided that was ridiculous and put it back on, but I think this illustrates what a difficult topic this can be to talk about, so thank you for be willing to dive into the discussion!

    • Matt Blumberg

      Happy to dive in deeper any time!

  • Josh Rutstein

    Great post Matt. I like the fact that we are starting to have these conversations and people on opposing sides are debating the merits of arguments, not just getting angry about questioning even the most basic of what have historically been 'norms'. You pointed out that Sheryl wrote about "learned helplessness" the very notion of which is ironic because stereotypical men would never tolerate that behavior in the workplace. Personally I think this is at the heart of the problem and I wish we would really start to work to address it. Funny that I wrote about it just a few days ago It seems I have a kindred spirit…this book just moved up on my list.

    • Matt Blumberg

      Josh, thanks for the comment and the link to your post.  Really thought provoking.  I wonder if it’s a zero sum game – a successful couple in terms of work and parenting must put in 200% effort – 100% at work and 100% at home.  Who takes what share of which piece is what’s up for debate, not the premise.

  • Brett

    I didn't read the book yet, but my wife just started it. I think the comment about non-working moms being in the high or low end of the income spectrum is interesting. We feel that we are firmly in the middle class, and initially after our son was born my wife went back to work, but she then started feeling pressure from both our families that she should stay home if we could swing it financially. After about 8 months (and working for a company that treats people like a disposable commodity) she gave into the pressure and decided she should stay home. I support her choice either way, and I don't think she regrets her decision, but there was loads of judgement and pressure from our very blue collar families.

    • Matt Blumberg

      The pressure from families is tough, and personally I find it more annoying than helpful. It's loaded with their own perceptions of norms from their generations and who knows what other baggage. Everyone has to do what's right for themselves.Matt

  • Stephanie Colleton

    Thank you for reading Lean In and blogging about it. I really liked how she used data to show bias. I think people tend to think “Oh, that doesn’t happen anymore.” But when people read about the Heidi/Howard study or the one where the same resume was presented with two different names and the managers said they would offer the man a higher salary, they can’t ignore how real these problems are. The marathon analogy was right on target as well as the part where she notes “When a couple announces that they are having a baby, everyone says “Congratulations!” to the man and “Congratulations! What are you planning on doing about work?” to the woman. A couple days before a friend went back to work after maternity leave for her third child, I sent her flowers with a card that read “Good luck next week. You can do it!” About a year later she texted me a picture of the card which she had posted on her bulletin board at work. She said it gave her strength on tough days. I think everyone will find an anecdote that mirrors their own professional or personal experience and valuable career advice. Looking forward to continuing the conversation. – Stephanie

    • Matt Blumberg

      Thanks for prompting me to read it.  I wouldn’t have done so without your ask.  Not for any bad reason, I just felt like “this isn’t for me.”  But clearly, it is!Matt

  • Dana

    Thank you for posting about this, Matt. As a American working in Europe for the past 13 years, I've had the opportunity to observe this issue from more than one cultural environment. I consider myself very fortunate to work for Return Path while living in Europe. When I first moved to Bavaria, Germany in 2000 I mistakenly believed that the progressive European attitudes in the political arena would translate to gender and equality issues as well. I was so wrong! In Munich I was called a "Rabbenmutter" (bad or unavailable mother) more than once for working full-time. At one of the first interviews I went to the male IT Director asked me with an incredulous tone, "You have a child? How do you work?!". I asked him, "do you have children?" His response was, "yes, I have three". So I asked him, "well how do you work?". He answered, "I have a wife". My response was, "well then I need to get one of those too". Surprisingly he hired me on the spot which is almost unheard of in Germany. As I networked and connected with more women,both Germans and American expats, I found that I wasn't alone. American women in Germany were stunned at the level of bias and German women weren't sure where to start the discussion. France was much more open about women returning to work. But the male-to-female salary gap in France is appalling. Many mothers in France return to work when their children are three months old. I've seen German women balk at that fact. And that's the elephant in the room. Women chastising other women. My personal philosophy is that each individual must stand up against the tide (when necessary) and stand their ground; Because I knew German and French companies were offering me less than male counterparts, I negotiated harder and didn't give in. I still didn't "win" though. Because, over the years a couple of male managers and counterparts expressed resentment at my salary. I had one manager tell me that it was unacceptable that I earned only X€ less than him and more than my teammates (all male). The more personal comments about working mothers were harder to stomach though. Some regions in Europe are still where America was in the 70s and 80s regarding women and work. Some, like Sweden are brilliant and excellent examples of what's possible. I guess we can't change thousands of years of cultural and sub-conscious conditioning in just a few decades but I am so thankful that we are talking about it, working on it and making progress.

    • Matt Blumberg

      Dana, thanks for the thoughtful post.  I hadn’t focused on the issue outside of the US, but your examples are really poignant.  And yes, as you say, the most important thing is to be yourself, stand up for what you think is right, and talk about it!