Book Review: Lean-In (Sheryl Sandberg)

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg: Corporate boardroom stilt meets the feminine mystique.

Interesting book detailing the evolution of (for want of a better word) “Feminism” to its current level of social visibility. In order to understand this transition, it’s helpful to review how life was for females in the 60s and 70s.

‘Horses sweat,

Men perspire,

Ladies feel the heat”

(“Debbie”, Alpha Chi Omega house, Athens, Ga, 1965)

In the mid-60s at the University of Georgia, females were told they would be “Southern Ladies” in every respect, whether they liked it much or not. Girls were not allowed to be seen on campus unless they wore a dress. No shorts and no slacks. Raincoats to hide physical education apparel encumbered trips to gym.

My then girlfriend was a straight up Dean’s List student with a double major in history and political science. (I was on a rather different Dean’s List). She applied to the UGa School of Law with great qualifications including strong letters from lawyers she had worked for. At her interview, she was said to be highly qualified. Too bad she was a girl.

That culture collapsed in the later 60s and early 70s as the Hippies redefined femininity as an encumbrance identifying them as chattel to be used and abused for the pleasure of males. This revelation prompted rejection of any modes or manners rendering them “attractive” (to males). The only way for a female to break free of these bonds was to do so on terms that set them apart in every way from the enemy. No fashionable clothing, makeup or feminine manners, and of course, no other “comfort measures” males had become comfortable with. The rise of the “natural” woman, complete with hairy legs and birds nest coifs.

Although this ambiance was made much of in the media, trust me, it didn’t last all that long and was limited to mostly die-hards with lots of other axes to grind. If for no other reason, “burn your bra” feminism flew against the genomic imperative for the sexes to “get together” in a manner that insures procreation of the species. Sorry, that’s just the way it works.

“Well, I met a girl at the Rainbow bar

She asked me if I’d beat her

She took me back to the Hyatt House…”

”I don’t want to talk about it”

(Warren Zevon, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” (1976)

Regardless of whether you’re a creationist or evolutionist, you will probably agree that the genome for human function was designed a very long time ago. In the beginning there was only the slim potential for live births to survive and adaptation to a harsh and unforgiving environment. 
In the beginning, there were no Ivy League universities, no board rooms and no rules of law. The genome didn’t understand how to adapt to the inevitability of change any more than the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution knew how to adapt to shoulder mounted weapons capable of firing over 100 rounds per minute in a civilian environment.

Accordingly, the genotypic male brain facilitated the fighting of wolves from the door and the clearing of a few acres before lunch. The female brain was designed for enhanced non-verbal communication to facilitate the understanding of infants (and ferreting out deceptions from males). Arguably, the ability to effectively fight wolves from the door is more useful in a boardroom than second guessing the occult emotional expression of business or political adversaries. This is not to say that the female brain cannot and would not adapt to this environment, it is only to say that it’s a bit of a bigger stretch.

The genome also carves out “attraction” criteria for getting people together who would otherwise kill each other on sight. Those criteria are locked and loaded by acculturation. Hosiery, four and a half inch heels, “little black dresses” and cleve-bras were not designed to impress other women. Guys plinking at loud electric guitars till their fingers bleed do not set a stage to mimic Clapton. It all gets males and females together, sometimes for only a few seconds at a time like Diamond Dave Lee Roth, all with their eyes rolled up into the backs of their heads like Mr. Spock at his wedding.

“Survival kit contents…. check. One forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations………. one issue proph-lactics; three lipsticks; three pair nylon stockin’s……. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff”.

(Major T. J. “King” Kong: Dr. Strangelove, (1960)

Unfortunately, the genome is designed only to get the players together long enough to whelp a few kids. It then fades and cares little what happens next- reliably divorce attorneys and forensic accountants. But I digress.

“Well, she really worked me over good

Just like Jesse James

She really worked me over good

She was a credit to her gender

Poor, poor pitiful me

These young girls wont let me be

Lord of mercy on me”

(Warren Zevon, ibid)

Ms. Sandberg nurtures the innate capability of women to excel at anything they choose, which is of course true, but goes further to subjectively suggest women have an innate ability in the upper reaches of business and politics not necessarily shared by others (men). Not so fast. Looking back to the 70s, the reason “The Feminine Mystique” (Betty Friedan) caught fire so fast and to such revolutionary effect was that the American housewife saw herself in the vision.

Conversely, Sandberg’s vision is anything but translational on populace terms. They reek of Harvard, Goldman Sachs, Google, Facebook and the Upper East Side. They inhabit a tiny floating raft out of reach of the middle class, which itself is slowly vanishing Ms. Sandberg had a self-fulfilling shot at that brass ring because of her bankrolled upbringing. She was guaranteed open-ended support for any endeavor she chose, and she happened to have the random access grey matter to achieve it. The choices of other women, or anyone else for that matter, are shaped by factors that cannot be controlled.

Women don’t choose where they enter the world, what resources are available to them and they don’t (usually) choose rich mates as a priority. 
They raise families under whatever circumstances they find themselves in, one of the toughest jobs in existence, and their ambitions are necessarily constrained within that sphere. Sandberg’s call to press forward has an equal potential to make women born with plastic spoons in their mouths to feel inadequate for not following her footsteps more when they are already trying as hard as they can to keep their heads above water.

Ms. Sandberg, implies, but does not actually verbalize, the proposition that XX chromosomes are inherently more effective in big league corporate and political leadership positions, possibly because they are more attuned to function rather than glitz and hype (afflictions afflicting males). This is very shaky logic.

There’s no reason why women should not have the same ability as men for high end CEO jobs and upper crust politics, but there’s also no phylogenetic reason why they are better equipped for it either. 
 Carly Fiorina very nearly ran Hewlett-Packard into the toilet and was, in the immortal words of “Apocalypse Now”, “terminated with extreme prejudice”. As CEO of EBay, Meg Whitman bought Skype high and sold it (to Microsoft) low. It’s supposed to be the other way around.

There is also little prospective guarantee that women in positions of authority will have any more concern for the welfare of other women than male CEOs. Madeline Albright once famously remarked that if you want to see how a world run with women works, watch how they treat each other in high school.

There is some conjecture that Ms. Sandburg came out strongly for Hillary Clinton for President in 2008 because Ms. Clinton’s chromosomal makeup put her into a winner’s class. Never mind Ms. Clinton’s extensive history of ruthless male-like political manipulation and riding her husband’s coat tails.

Aggressive female executives may run more effective companies than male executives, but they’re no more likely to advocate day care as the law of the land. CEO Marissa Mayer of Yahoo recently made it clear that she did not see her job as helping women live in Sandberg’s fair and equitable female world by halting any work done out of the office. Yahoo employees quickly discovered that, when market forces collide with gender equality, market policies win. It doesn’t matter who runs the company.

Despite a few errant mutations of feral female free spiriting (Sarah Palin and anyone named Kardashian), Ms. Sandburg envisions women of all stripes as media fed ambition for achieving to the strains of “we are the champions!” Realistically, exhorting women to visualize success by how much leeway they have to bring their own their own choices to fruit would be more interesting.

Ms. Sandberg would be more credible if she came out strongly in favor of women getting the same deal in life and love and business as anyone else without having to negotiate any more or less for it. Addressing the continuing problem women traditionally face: less pay for the same work as men and violence perpetrated on them because of their inherent vulnerability, but it’s quite arguable whether the COO of Facebook understand Children of Lesser Gods’ visions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s