I have not yet read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (though I’ve ordered it and may miraculously get to read it on my upcoming maternity leave). I haven’t read many of the so-called “back-lash” articles either. But as this is a blog, I’m blogging in my own present moment reacting to the conversation that I am hearing around me (and so, one should not read this as a book review of Sandberg’s book in any way). What I have done is listen a bit, read a bit, and witness a few women railing against Sandberg’s premise while others treat it as their new-found Bible. I’m writing in reaction to the reaction as I have begun to witness it.
For now, my limited understanding is that Sandberg, Facebook COO is asking women to lean in, to let loose our ambitions, to be aware of the ways that we have held ourselves back and equally been held back by those around us. Sandberg seeks to understand why women continue to lag far behind men in leadership positions and examines possible solutions for addressing these challenges. So far, Lean In is a message that I can fully embrace.
Sandberg appears to be asking/demanding that as a culture, we shift and change. This applies to all of us regardless of our gender. Men are an essential part of that process as husbands and fathers, and as colleagues, bosses, and mentors. If women are going to achieve, room must be made in the home as well as the boardroom through the sharing of childcare duties and the expansion of opportunities in the workplace.
Some of the backlash as I understand it comes from the fact that Sandberg is not your everyday woman. Rather, she is a millionaire who can literally afford to deal with the work-home balance while not every woman can count on being able to pay for quality child care while also working. I have heard the argument that maybe women naturally shy away from the top tier positions because we simply don’t want them or we find less-pressure jobs more fulfilling overall or we choose child-rearing as our primary focus and as such, Sandberg’s ask is not only exclusive, but also offensive to those who have made choices that differ from Sandberg’s own.
I came across an interesting tweet in response to this particular criticism. Heidi Moore, the Guardian’s financial analyst tweeted: “No man reads [male-written business manifesto] Good to Great worrying that it doesn’t sympathize with guys working at McDonald’s.” The issue is not about judgment about one’s choices. My problem with my understanding of the backlash is the unrealistic expectation that Sandberg needs to account for all women’s choices. Men don’t write about success with that same unrealistice expectation. Why, I wonder, do we immediately attack one woman’s take on success and balance when it doesn’t fit in with everyone’s presumed choices? It is true that Sandberg’s argument/plea to women to lean in, to fight for professional success if that is what they truly want may not fit every single woman to a tee, but I don’t think (and again, I admit I have not yet read Lean In) that she is proclaiming that every woman need to make the same choices that she has. Her book is a wondering aloud about the lack of parity and equality in the workforce, particularly in the top tiers and what we can do as individuals, if we so choose, and as a society to right this wrong.
This past week, we read Vayikra as a Jewish community. The first word Vayikra itself is most often written in Torah scrolls with a small alef in comparison to the rest of the letters in the word. The midrash around this interesting scribal anomaly is that as Moses was writing the Torah as dictated to him from above, he came to this verse and in his humble nature did not want to put in print that alef (and thus write that God called to Moses). Moses did not want to publically proclaim his special role and relationship with God. He wanted to drop that alef so that the word became vayikar implying that God just ‘happened’ upon Moses as opposed to having called and singled him out to share the laws of Torah with the people. However, God wants the alef and so Moses compromises by writing vayikra ([God] called) with the miniature alef. He is saying ‘I am important, but not so much so…”
The small alef represents to me the balance we all face between recognizing our potential, recognizing our calling and our gifts while at the same time remaining humble in nature and making room for others around us. Now before we go so far as to use this midrash to justify women being demure or that we should hold back in our humility and say dayenu for all that we have already achieved… I would like to offer another approach. That small alef is for everyone – women and men alike. Sometimes there are times that some of us need to pay more attention to its size and there are other times that some of us need to pay more attention to the fact that that alef even exists in the first place and acknowledge our talents and gifts and even our chosenness and callings in this life personally and professionally. This is an individual journey for all of us. At the same time, perhaps this is also a gender journey as we work collaboratively towards a more equitable society. Perhaps the message for our present day is that room needs to made by men for women to notice, proclaim, and embrace the alef’s existence (after all, we’re not just happened upon!). Perhaps, it’s even time for women to not only embrace that alef, but even to lean in and throw a magnifying glass on it so that we – and the world around us – can begin to bear witness to our call.
Rabbi Jill Perlman is the assistant rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA. She works with an amazing male senior rabbi and mentor. Along with her amazing husband with whom she shares child-care duties, she raises her twin 3-year-old sons and is excitedly expecting a daughter to join their lives.