Why Men Should Read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean InChange depends upon women and men working together to transform the social structures of work and family life.
Why Men Should Read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In

When the COO of Facebook writes a book about women and leadership, the world takes notice. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, turned heads when it came out in March of 2013, and it sparked heavy criticism (see, for example, the Washington Post’s Recline, don’t ‘LeanIn’ (Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg)) as well as praise for her wit, vulnerability, and encouraging words (see, for example, the New York Times’ Yes You Can). I’ve been listening to Sandberg’s manifesto on Audible for the past few weeks, and although I agree with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Times article that Lean In contains some oversights and weaknesses, on the whole it contributes a valuable perspective to the contemporary conversation about women in the workforce.

Sandberg has given me a lot to think about both as a woman and as a Christian. I’ve spent some tearful conversations with my husband wondering whether I haven’t been ambitious enough. I’ve spent some prayerful moments considering what it means to lay down my life for my family while also stewarding the gifts God has given me. I’ve wondered about how to apply Christian values—particularly the value of humble confidence and mutual giving and receiving—to this conversation. Finally, I’ve felt anger at the system Sandberg describes—a system that rewards men and penalizes women for family and household participation (see the Atlantic’s recent article about Paternity Leave for more information here).

But more than anything else, reading Lean In has convinced me that in order for any positive change to occur, men need to participate fully in the conversation about empowering women in the workplace and sharing responsibilities in the home sphere. I have asked my husband to read Lean In too, because we are partners in this attempt to faithfully steward our professional and personal responsibilities.

Men (and not only husbands) need to read Lean In for at least three reasons: empathy, social change, and mutual growth.

As for empathy, men need to make themselves aware of the hurdles women face in trying to handle traditional expectations for household and family together with modern expectations of contributing to the economic health of a family. Sandberg does not argue that all women (or all men) should expect themselves to work outside of the home and maintain a household. But she does argue that every man and every woman should have the freedom to choose whether or not s/he wants to work outside the home. Men need to be aware of the tensions women feel and the barriers we face when trying to navigate the “work/life balance.” (Women need to be aware of the growing tensions men face for similar reasons.)

Awareness does not always lead to change, but it does begin a recognition process that can help facilitate listening that leads to transformation. Sandberg cites the example of a senior banking executive who realized he felt comfortable having breakfast or lunch with a female colleague, but he wasn’t willing to risk the perception of impropriety by having dinner along with a woman. So he explained to his team that he would no longer have dinners alone with anyone, male or female, in order to protect against indirect favoritism of the men in his firm. Other men might come to different conclusions about how to solve this problem, but his recognition of the practical consequences of his dining decisions enabled women in his firm to have equal access to social capital. Men hold most of the positions of leadership within American companies, and as a result men hold the power to initiate and accelerate change when it comes to female participation and leadership within the workforce.

Finally, women and men walk this road of modern life together. The workplace doesn’t simply need to change and adjust in order to facilitate female leadership and participation but in order to restructure expectations for both men and women when it comes to work and family. Sandberg writes about women who don’t “lean in” to their potential years before they consider getting pregnant because they assume they will have to leave the workforce eventually. These early decisions affect them for decades. Maternity leave only underscores the sense that women with children operate professionally on a different track than men. Moreover, maternity leave underscores this bifurcation within the home as men easily begin a pattern of deferring to women as the one who knows what to do with the baby, and then the toddler, and then the child. Breaking this pattern promises not only that women can participate more fully in the workforce but also than men can participate more fully in the domestic sphere. Sandberg recognizes the differences—biological and social—between men and women. But she insists that just as women have valuable contributions to make in every area of work, so too men have valuable contributions to offer in every area of the home and family.

Sheryl Sandberg writes about an ideal in which women and men have been recognized for their diverse but equally valuable abilities in the workplace and at home. Our culture has not yet caught up to this ideal, an ideal that could provide a better world for men and women and children. Making the ideal a reality cannot rest upon the shoulders of women alone. Men, you need us, and we need you. Let’s make this change happen, together.

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