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Leaning in to get ahead

COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s talk in Delhi was an odd mix of hard-sell and upper class feminism lite, writes Namita Kohli.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2014 15:30 IST
Namita Kohli
Namita Kohli
Hindustan Times
Facebook,Sheryl Sandberg,Lean in

Sheryl Sandberg is an icon, the PR manager for Facebook tells me. Interview slots with the COO of Facebook, and the author of the highly publicised, and much talked about self-help guide Lean In, have been booked “three times over”, he says, in response to a request for an interview with the corporate honcho whose book has suddenly made a version of feminism-in-a-business suit hip, ever since it was released last year. In the book, Sandberg says that despite the odds being stacked against women, they need to banish self-doubt and be confident to get ahead. “Leaning in” is thus, a treatise to step forward, juggle family and career, and most importantly, not give up by getting bogged down by societal stereotypes of what women ought to do.

Critics have accused Sandberg of espousing the cause of the privileged, but her women-can-have-it-all-if-they-tried-hard spiel has also earned her followers who find her message “inspirational”, beginning with her 2010 Ted Talk on “leaning in” that went viral on social media, and subsequently, formed the genesis of her book.

As for me, dear reader, clearly, I hadn’t “leaned in” hard enough to get this interview. So, the following day, I landed up at a talk hosted by the FICCI Ladies Organization (FLO) where Sandberg was speaking about “Women, Work and the Will to Lead”. At the event, held at a posh city hotel, the only people who were really “leaning in”, I figured, were the news photographers, desperate for a good photo-op, and a few guests hoping to “pose for a selfie” with her. The “leaning in” turned into a bit of a scramble as soon as Sandberg walked into the hall, but she pushed them back politely and declined requests for photo-ops or interviews.

Inside the hall, eager, well-groomed women with designer handbags and diamond jewelry waited patiently for the “lady in that very cool pink dress” — and a Harvard degree, a career that began with the World Bank, moved on to Mc Kinsey, Google, and finally, Facebook — to talk. Sandberg, 45, took to the stage with her highly animated ‘act’: she moved back and forth on the stage while addressing the audience, her speech about the “sorry situation of women” in the world was modulated for the right effect, she smiled a lot, and her pupils dilated when she asked her audience: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

The idea behind that question was to tell women that they are always too afraid and lack self-confidence. Even successful women are full of self-doubt, and think of themselves as “frauds” waiting to be found out, she said. Indian women might claim an 11 per cent share of the CEO population in the country — as opposed to the global figure of 3 per cent — but that’s hardly anything to cheer about: “Because, guess what, the world is still run by men!” The trouble is women hold themselves back for fear of being labeled “aggressive” and “bossy”, even as the same qualities are encouraged in men, who are anyway “born leaders”, she said, as the audience nodded in approval.

So what’s the solution? According to Sandberg, women need to defy such stereotypes. “This weekend, you need to encourage that little girl at the playground who has organising skills. Don’t tell her she is ‘aggressive’, instead, tell her she is ‘results-oriented’,” she said.

Next, Sandberg said she wanted society to have systems that encourage fair treatment of women, applauding the “zero tolerance” for violence against women in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inaugural address in the Parliament. Women need systems that can make them feel safe when they step out, and having them in leadership positions, will help implement such policies, she reasoned.

The significant pitch at the talk — and in Lean In — however, was the crucial balance at home: who does the laundry, washes the dishes, changes the diapers and manages the help, all with full-time jobs? “In the US, women spend 30-40 per cent more time doing housework than men; in India, it is bound to be 10 times more. That needs to change,” Sandberg said. If women — and men — ensured that housework was shared, a lot could change, and perhaps, women could, indeed, have it all. For effect, Sandberg even had two of her company’s female employees stand up, and quoted the example of another of her Indian employees who stayed on, despite her two pregnancies.

Sandberg’s almost child-like enthusiasm for the Lean In formula is infectious. She even manages to make a valid point — change the rules of the game by sharing housework and making your husband “do the laundry, instead of buying flowers to please you”. Sure. But for an audience who could well afford the luxuries of domestic help for laundry and other such chores, the effort was wasted.

Moreover, her prescription on what ought to happen, ignores the why of the problem: businesses have still not warmed up to the idea of paternal leaves (as opposed to maternal leaves) and options such as creches at the workplace, and community support for childcare is still lacking, placing that burden entirely on women. Structural inequalities, such as unequal pay for women, renders the field even more uneven. That leaves couples with the option of hiring an army of house help or cajoling parents to stay with them to manage the show.

Predictably then, Sandberg’s formula has split opinions on the issue: Anne Marie Slaughter wrote in her 2012 essay ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All’ in The Atlantic magazine, that to be both mothers and top professionals, women had to be superhuman, rich, or self-employed. Others such as American feminist, and columnist with The Nation, Katha Politt, finds “nothing wrong” in offering practical advice on how not to give in, lest women thought there was no other way.

Ultimately, the problem lies with women who give up too soon — even if some would counter that by arguing that it was a “choice” they made, and a privilege they could afford. Closer home, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi Co was quoted, in an interview with Forbes magazine, that women can’t have it all, and that even she has had days when her mother expected her — not her husband — to fetch milk after a long day, and a promotion.

At the talk, however, women in the audience would rather have more practical advice than just an inspirational talk: What to do about falling behind at work after having kids? “Join a company that allows work from home.” How to deal with being called “aggressive” during a performance review? “Build a network by joining the Lean in circles to talk about it.” Ah, the Lean In circles, the peer groups meant for women to talk about such problems.

But will all that talk lead to a change in the working conditions of women? Now that might be too much to expect from a formula that favours individual solutions over collective solidarity, and meaningful success over “having it all”.

First Published: Jul 06, 2014 14:35 IST