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.