Friday, December 20, 2013

LEAN IN? We Can Do Better Than That.

I’ve been given another chance, and I’m not letting this one get away.

Opportunity Number One came in the late 70s, when “camera woman” was a pairing of words almost unheard of. But my friend Cathy had gone after that type of work and, at 25, she'd begun a career in L.A. on sitcoms, game shows, sports programs and TV specials.

When I visited her, she took me to work.  

These days, terrorism may have changed everything, but back then, once you were in, you were apparently deemed okay.  Except for doors bearing the warning: “Closed Set,” I could stroll almost anywhere.

After watching Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett do lots of takes as a humorous Adam and Eve for a Sunday morning special, then clapping with everybody else, when some guy held up a sign telling us to do that for a quiz show called Crosswits, I happened upon a rehearsal for a new Norman Lear comedy.

“All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” – Lear was in his heyday as a TV hit maker and game changer.  But a few minutes into this one, I knew that the pattern was unlikely to hold.

Lear’s plan was to present “All That Glitters” five evenings a week, in the manner of daytime soaps.  The premise of the sitcom/soap was this: Genderwise, the business world was precisely reversed.  Women ran virtually everything; men stayed home or worked in offices as secretaries.  

Here was Lear’s latest opportunity to take on the way the world was and open discussion as to how it could be.   The scene I watched had a cast of two, a young husband and wife in their kitchen in the a.m., right before she needed to grab her briefcase and leave.

The leggy, well-coiffed young lady bashfully related her concern about something going on at the office.   Hubby counseled her gently.  She nestled her head between his neck and manly shoulder and was comforted.  

When the scene was over, the crew broke into spontaneous applause.  I was appalled.  

The script and the choices the actors and director had made had yielded a world precisely the same as the one that already existed.  Women needed to be rescued.  Therefore, there was no logic for the gender switcheroo, unless the scene was taking place on a one-day fun day when couples got to try out each other’s daytime pursuits.  No logic was apparent as to why such a change had taken place permanently; there was nowhere for the plot to go.

As it turned out, the show was blasted by critics and audiences.  It lasted three months. 

It just so happened that at that time, there were two – tops, three -- degrees of separation between Norman Lear and me.  Before the show debuted, I could have written him a note he might actually have personally read.  Of course, the likelihood of a note from me having the slightest effect on the world of Lear was low.  Nevertheless, I regret that I wrote no note. 

All these years later, I find myself in that familiar spot again.  This time, it’s a runaway hit, not a flop, and it’s a book, not a TV show.  But the subject and its presentation are eerily similar.  

Lean In, of course, is an expansion by Sheryl Sandberg of her highly lauded TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.”  In both, she has urged women to do more to enter the higher echelons of corporate control.  It topped best-seller lists upon its release, and was a popular graduation gift in May and June.  And now, here we are, in the stretch toward the end of 2013.  Well, better late than (as with Norman Lear) never!

From the very beginning of her career, Sandberg has held high positions at impressive entities, governmental and corporate.   Two of those corporations: Google and Facebook. 

Throughout the book, Sandberg offers statistics about working men and women, and examples -- often from her own experience or that of a friend or acquaintance -- of making it in the corporate world. 

When pregnant while serving as COO at Google, Sandberg heard from her husband that his company offered close-to-the-entrance parking for pregnant employees.   She marched into Sergey Brin’s office and demanded the same at Google. That, she records triumphantly, was granted.  All she had needed to do was lean in!  

However, a few pages later, she describes how, all her maternity leave plans to the contrary, she was checking office email from her hospital bed on the day after her baby’s birth.  Just like many of the men she’d learned from, she was exhibiting Type A personality traits and a fear of being replaced if she favored her personal life, even briefly, postpartum.    

Sandberg calls one of her main points: “Don’t leave before you leave.”  Another is : Marry a supportive guy.  But the leaving before you leave, she tells us, can start in women even before marriage.  She describes young, unattached women who are holding themselves back from Day 1, because they see themselves up ahead, needing to take time off to raise a family. 

Sandberg references employers, the U.S. Census Bureau, husbands and wives.  All four groups see child rearing and housekeeping as primarily women’s responsibilities. Even when both partners work, even when the woman is the primary bread winner, men refer to their participation at home as housecleaning assistance and babysitting.   Therefore, she concludes, aren’t women who look ahead, so early in their careers, to the child-rearing years simply recognizing the reality of the work world as it is now?

Passages like that reminded me of an art form we pursued at summer camp.  We’d tap a tiny pointed tool into a copper sheet over and over, to create many pinpoint-sized indentations, gradually and painstakingly forming an image. 

Sandberg urges women to take up their teeny hammers on the copper sheet of The Way It Is.  After some serious tapping, tiny dents in the corporate culture may appear.

Can Sandberg really feel that, given a clean slate (or sheet of copper), on which to etch a version of the work world, women would, or should, create one more or less in this one’s image? 

I could continue to present my case, but someone else has taken this subject on so convincingly that I now turn the floor over to him.  Yes, it’s a “him.”  

James Allworth is politely floored that Sandberg doesn’t suggest ways women can do us all a favor by forgetting the tap-tap hammers.  He wonders why women like Sandberg aren’t talking and writing about overturning the world out there entirely.  He’d like to read a good book about replacing old work habits, at almost every turn, with wiser women’s ways. 

Because I’m posting this later than I might have, I’m referring you to a piece Allworth authored a while ago. (He was far more punctual than I.)

Fortunately or unfortunately, his post is just as timely now. Take a look.