Book Review: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the Career Challenges for Women who want familiesIdes Ofune 5th May 2020 0 COMMENTS
I got to know about the Book, “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg after reading Michelle Obama’s memoire “Becoming”. In it, Michelle alluded to the fact that it’s not always possible for women to “lean in”. I had come across this phrase several times and became curious as to what it really meant. I decided to do a little research and became aware that such a book existed. I knew about Sheryl Sandberg after the heartwarming messages she received from the media when she lost her husband. I then proceeded to order it online. However, something critical happened to me which resonates well with the message of the book. At the beginning of this year, I made a resolution to go after opportunities and also not refuse them when they arise. This is because in 2019, I rejected a lot of them due to having a young child who totally depends on me as her primary care giver. Since she was born, she had only been out of my sight for four nights due to my hospitalization. On another note, I had made the conscious personal decision to always be available for my children especially at their formation stage. I believe other care givers, teachers or nurseries can never take the place of my time. With this decision in mind, the first two years after she was born saw me refusing opportunities especially if they took me outside of the home.
Few days before the book arrived, I received a request to do a policy analysis on Live TV with an internationally acclaimed media station in Nigeria. My instinctive reaction was to refuse it. My husband works regular full time and the arrangements I had during the days I went to school didn’t accommodate that particular day of the programme. Thankfully, I remembered my resolution and decided to stick to it. I accepted anyway without knowing exactly how this was going to pan out. I then frantically made calls to friends who I knew could assist. I was able to find a friend of a friend who was willing to help out. The programme was a great success and tremendously helped my career plans. The question then is, what if I had turned it down for family reasons? Secondly, what if I couldn’t get a place to keep her? These are all valid questions that women encounter every day. I know family dynamics differ but in most countries, this scenario plays out in a myriad of ways.
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A ma grande surprise, the Book Lean in is generally about what women should do when they find themselves faced with career opportunities and challenges at the same time. Sheryl Sandberg opines that women self-sabotage or tone down their ambitions because of what they tell themselves inwardly. She gave true life examples of her experience occupying senior leadership positions with Google and Facebook to back up her claim. One time, she invited men and women to a meeting but the women preferred to sit at the side corner and not on the table even after encouraging them while the men sat full place without needing any urge. She thinks that because women negatively shrink themselves internally, they do not push themselves forward. In addition, when she regularly gave talks to young people just starting out in their careers, men always asked questions related to finance and career growth while women mostly asked questions on balancing family and career.
In some other cases, she explains that when interviewing women for senior positions, they usually pass on the opportunity when they realise how challenging the role could be especially if it involved traveling or staying late in the office. They do this either because of their present families or the anticipation of starting a family in the nearest future. Due to this reason, men are mostly available to take up leadership opportunities thereby exacerbating the gender gap at the top. A final remarkable point is the impostor syndrome where women feel inadequate to perform a task. Research shows that this is hardly an obstacle for men. Men push themselves forward for positions even when they are unqualified while women will only put themselves up only when they are 100% qualified which we know in life no one can ever be. Nobody is ever fully qualified – fortune favours only the bold.
I would say this is the blunt truth. As women, we sabotage ourselves internally. We talk ourselves out of opportunities and justify them. However, this is not to say that our reasons are not real. Women live with these challenges every day. These questions are at the back of every woman’s mind especially those who want a family of their own and are equally as ambitious in her career. This question is not just due to some social construct, upbringing or cultural expectations as researchers will have us believe. As long as we are the gender that incubates and births babies, we will continue to face this challenge. Let us therefore not be quick to dismiss women who have such concerns lest we come up with another reason to put the female gender down. I think the world as it is today is skewed against women. Men constructed the framework for the current formal work environment and typical of humans, it was done not taking women peculiarities into account. And when women entered the workforce, changing it has become a herculean task.
How do you as a woman who has ambitions then fit into the man’s world? What is the solution? Are we to fold our arms and give up? Sandberg presented a lot of ways to thrive in this reality. One of them is getting your husband actively involved in the childcare responsibilities. Another is not refusing opportunities because of a scenario that has not yet happened. Don’t turn down that traveling job in anticipation of a child that has not arrived or thinking you might not be able to combine both responsibilities. She proposes that you take it up first and muster the courage to face the challenges as they come. Short and long of the story is that don’t talk yourself out of an opportunity for whatever reason.
In society today, women are still the major primary care givers to children and men are only seen as helping out. However, when a woman is married to a man who refuses to take up his own share of child care responsibilities, it presents a difficult choice for an ambitious woman as she climbs up particularly if she is not financially stable. Personally, as much as I go after my career ambitions, I am also very much aware of its shortcomings. I wouldn’t want to be in a position of losing something as precious as family because of them. To be honest, I don’t even want to be in a position where I have to make a choice between the two. There are things in life that money can never ever replace. So as you climb up that career ladder, be aware of the challenges and make a real plan to face them when they come. Don’t be oblivious, naïve or politically correct about them. It’s your life we are talking about here.
I conclude by saying as a woman, whatever choice you make, ensure it’s for your happiness and joy – not for society nor any women’s movement. I also believe we must respect individual choices even if they go against what we think is best for the overall society’s benefit. At the end of the day, we are fighting for women’s rights not to fill up statistics but to ensure that opportunities bring personal fulfillment. Societal fulfillment should never come at the expense of individuals. If you are ambitious and your life accommodates opportunities, soar without permission. Go for that role, push forward and kill the impostor syndrome. You are enough! Nobody and not even you should talk yourself out of it.
Ides Ofune is currently a PhD Student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on civil society and accountability in improving the quality of education. She is the founder of Desert Bloom Initiative and editor of Desert Bloom Advisory. Ides is very passionate about education and creating an inclusive society. She speaks French and English fluently. She can be reached at email@example.com