I want to thank TwoEsforMee for her recent post: “Talking About Bias; Speaking While Female.”  It made me think harder about many things we have discussed here on the blog and I want to offer a longer comment before all these thoughts evaporate.

The Sandberg Paradox

It is easy to pick on Sheryl Sandberg because she is putting herself and her ideas out into the world, but I think her efforts are slowly proving the futility of her perspective.   When I reviewed Lean In early in our blog’s development, I highlighted two somewhat divergent approaches to the “women in the workplace” issue: the institutional perspective and the leadership perspective.  The institutional perspective focuses on systemic barriers like sexism, inadequate childcare and/or maternity leave, inflexible scheduling, etc.  In contrast, the leadership perspective focuses on what individual professional women can do to improve their career prospects.  Sandberg acknowledges the institutional perspective but generally operates under the leadership perspective.

Unfortunately, the leadership perspective is not holding up well in practice.  Sandberg seems to eat her words more and more as time passes.  As TwoEsforMee noted in her post, one of the main calls to arms in the Lean In movement, discussing discrimination, appears to be backfiring, or at least requiring heavy qualifications.  Similarly, many women’s personal experiences (including my own) illustrate the entrenched barriers in women’s workplace environments.  Even Lean In seemed to contradict itself, with chapters alternately telling women to a) stand up for themselves but b) not making too much fuss in case someone thinks they are bitchy.

The more Sandberg champions the leadership perspective, the more the outcomes seem to support the institutional perspective.  It is nearly impossible to walk the tightrope (leadership perspective), when the weather is terrible and everyone around you thinks you should not be walking in the first place (institutional perspective).

The Leadership Perspective as a Distraction?

Given the leadership perspective’s apparent ineffectiveness, why does it persist?   Because we want it to be true.

We want to believe that with the right suit, resume format, business speak, and hard work we too can overcome adversity and become the next woman leader.  This delusion is not limited to the women’s community.  Upward mobility had stagnated for many groups and self-help books are as popular as ever.  But I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice when we persist in asking powerful women like Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton, and Oprah their secrets for success.  Lean In is full of typical answers about assertiveness and communication skills, but all this seems shockingly incomplete and ultimately insufficient.  None of it would have helped in my sexist project experience, nor will it do much for TwoE’sforMe as she tries to navigate the patriarchal world of medicine.

In the end, the real answer seems to be locate a supportive environment.  In Sandberg’s case, the supportive environment came from good workplaces, mentors, and life partners.  Others have succeeded after building their own supportive environments (see L’s review posts of #GIRLBOSS). Either way, this is unambiguously an institutional perspective solution dressed up to look like leadership in hindsight.

Finding or developing a supportive environment is not easy by any means, but it is much more likely to pay off than fretting over your communication strategies.  It does involve personal initiative, but initiative that focuses on your needs (not someone else’s “role model” path) and your environment, rather than viewing your situation as some personal leadership failure.

The institutional or work-environment approach also broadens the range of potential allies.  Everyone benefits from inclusive and supportive environments: families, racial minorities, the disabled, women, the LGBT community . . . the list could go on for a while.  Even the “corporate” interests would benefit from greater worker morale and productivity.  Feminist issues move from being “women’s” issues to being workplace issues with a broad coalition of support.

So I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for her efforts, but I worry that they represent a distraction from practical realities and effective initiative.  I for one will focus on finding or building a supportive work environment for myself in the future.