Yes, yes, I know, I know, Sheryl Sandberg’s book is too hip, too ubiquitous, too annoyingly in your face at every Best Seller table or airport book store “Recommended!” shelf. I, too, want to be too cool for school, want to march to the beat of my own drum, want to ignore what’s trendy in favor of what makes me a special unique snowflake.
However, sometimes the trendy thing is trendy for a reason. And sometimes, that reason is a good one. This is one of those times. You should read this book. I admit, I was skeptical. I admit, I was irritated by her perky demeanor, by her clear privilege, by her pat pieces of advice. I admit, I am a reluctant convert, but I am a convert nonetheless.
For my work book club, we are reading this book in chunks, and lucky you guys get to go along for the ride. So far, I have read the first four chapters. This is not a perfect book. It does not address every concern of every woman of every class and every situation, and that’s okay. I know it, now you know it, and most important of all, Sandberg knows it. Most of the criticism around her little personality cult is begins with “But what about women who…” (i.e. “But what about women who are working two jobs just to put food on the table?!”) This is not a book for them, and that’s okay, it’s not trying to be.
The other pushback she gets is that she puts too much emphasis on what women need to do differently, instead of on systemic and institutionalized sexism that needs to be changed. For those critics, I am just convinced they haven’t actually opened the goddamn book yet. Sandberg has her eyes wide open and she calls entrenched sexism when she sees it, which is all the time. Her point, which I agree with, is that we need a two pronged approach. Simultaneously A) Fix the broken shit (i.e. paid maternity leave like every other developed country in the world, or better yet, paid parental leave) and B) Do what we can to advocate for ourselves and our families at every turn.
But the most important thing I think Sandberg contributes to the conversation is the language to discuss the issues. We’ve added terms like “victim blaming”, “slut shaming,” “heteronormative,” “gaslighting,” etc. to the lexicon already, and these have helped us articulate what happens around us. Banging our fists in frustration has never worked. What Sandberg has done is compiled (and she gives credit where credit is due), a range of the underlying causes of the wage/work/ambition gap and distilled them into shareable, discussable, tweetable, referrable chunks.
So with no further preamble, a few of the concepts and vocabulary terms from chapters 1 through 4 that are worth sharing, discussing, tweeting, and referring to:
- “The Social Penalty” – Men who display ambition and desire for power are rewarded professionally and personally. They are promoted more and admired more. Women who display ambition or desire for power are rewarded professionally but punished personally. They get promoted, but they are not liked. This “social penalty” is important because being respected and liked is what leads to the most success.
- “Stereotype Threat” – When you tell people there’s a negative stereotype that applies to them, they tend to sink to it. If you remind a girl that “typically, boys are better at math,” she will actually perform worse than if you hadn’t said anything at all. If you ask kids to identify their race before a standardized test, even that small act of checking a box results in black and Latino kids performing worse if you hadn’t had them label themselves. If you tell a woman that “women are bad negotiators,” she will become a worse negotiator.
- “The Imposter Syndrome” – Ever get to work and worry that people were realize you’ve been “faking” all along? That you’re not the expert people think you are, that you shouldn’t be in charge, that you tricked them into hiring you? Both men and women feel this way, but the difference is that women consistently underestimate their own abilities. This means we don’t apply for jobs unless we feel 100% qualified for the listed responsibilities, while men apply even when they’re only confident of 60% of the skills. The truth is, we all learn on the job, but sometimes we weed ourselves out of jobs we very likely could have done.
- “The Gender Discount” – When you do what your gender is “supposed” to do, you don’t get credit for it. Women are “supposed” to be communal, so when we work well with others, that skill is discounted because it’s “natural.” When men work well in others, they are complimented for being a team player. Similarly, women who do coworkers a “favor” get significantly less thanks and respect then men who perform similar favors. For men, it is viewed as going the extra mile, while women are just acting like women (You know how women are, amirite?)
- “Relentlessly Pleasant” – Given the social penalty described above, one of the most successful strategies for women to navigate work place situations (especially controversial, confrontational, or challenging ones) is to be “relentlessly pleasant.” Always be smiling, always be asking for what you want. Do not let up on either front. Take note of this one the next time you are asking for a raise or a promotion. You need to be persistant while also being liked. Good luck!
- “Tiara Syndrome” – Women expect good work to be noticed and rewarded. They don’t want to have to ask for praise (because, as we’ve seen, being demanding or ambitious has a personal cost for women that it does not for men). While waiting for their work to be noticed, their male peers have forwarded “kudos” emails to their bosses, have asked clients to recommend them, have told their bosses about their positive reviews. You are not being judged on the quality of your work. You are being judged on the quality of the work your boss sees.
Phew, that was a lot! And only in four chapters! I want to reiterate again that Sandberg is never claiming it is “fair” that such discrepancies in perception and attitude exist, only that they do. The question then is, how to address them? For me, it will mean handing this book to my excellent (male) boss as soon as I’m finished. Any man that manages women should be reading this.
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