Negotiating, Finding a Mentor, and Burning the Midnight Oil: More Thoughts on Leaning In


After many months in the holds queue at the library, I finally got the e-copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In on my Kindle.

I’ve been hearing about this book for months, and it’s possible I’ve read more words about it than there are words in it. Some of the reaction amounts to high fives and attagirls; others criticize Sandberg’s supposedly limited and naive perspective, as if centuries of patriarchy will magically evaporate if enough of us raise our hands in meetings.

I don’t think that’s Sandberg’s thesis, and it’s disingenuous to criticize a book for not being some other book. Yes, there are systemic problems that make it hard for a woman to lean in. (She addresses those, by the way.) And yes, Lean In is very socioeconomically specific. But it’s still an empowering, worthwhile read.

The research about how men and woman are perceived differently in the workplace is jaw-dropping. Both sexes will downplay a person’s achievements if you attach a female name to them; the same résumé with a man’s name at the top will be judged more favorably. An assertive woman is seen as a bitch; an assertive man is just, well, a man. I was encouraged by the changes corporations and business schools have made to their cultures that have helped give women an even playing field to compete and thrive; those stories deserve to be heard widely. (One doctor changed his approach to rounds; instead of relying on people to raise their hands, he alternated calling on men and women, and of course found that women knew their stuff as well as or better than their male colleagues.)

Her section on negotiating for yourself was useful. Research suggests a simple two-pronged approach: be scrupulously nice in a way that builds community, and back up your negotiation with strong supporting info. (I’ve often said that my formula for being taken seriously as a woman in leadership is 1. being humorously self-deprecating, 2. giving people the benefit of the doubt, and 3. really, really knowing my stuff.) And I liked the story of the woman who was seeking a job and asked her, “What’s your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?” Sandberg had never heard that approach to a job interview.

Her chapter on mentoring was of particular interest since that’s a growing passion of mine. Sandberg writes, “We have sent the wrong message to young women. We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.'” Love that. She also urges women to be specific when asking for help. Asking for a lunch date to “catch up” is a bad approach; people are too busy for that, and it communicates that you haven’t done your homework to know what this particular mentor might be able to provide to you (and you to her, because the best mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial). She tells a few stories of young women who received mentoring advice from more senior women but didn’t consider it mentoring because they didn’t meet for an hour a week. “That’s not a mentor; that’s a therapist,” Sandberg quips.

The discrepancy in how women approach mentors makes sense in light of Deborah Tannen’s classic work on how men and women communicate. Very broadly speaking, men tend to be action and task oriented; women are relationship oriented. So it makes sense that women are going to ask for an hour-a-week, catch-up-and-be-friends kind of relationship… and then be disappointed when busy executives (or senior pastors) can’t fulfill that role. If we can be more specific and task-oriented when engaging a mentor, we’re more likely to be successful.

I’ve met so many women who’ve lamented the lack of [female] mentors. The same story gets told again and again with different names and details: [Potential Mentor] let me down, she never called me back, she wasn’t helpful at all, she saw me as a threat, etc. etc. I now wonder if part of the problem comes down to how we ask women to mentor us, and to what end.

On the complexities of leaning in when you have kids: Sandberg tells a story about one of her teams that was deadlocked on some issue. One of the men on the team spent the weekend crunching some numbers that broke the logjam on Monday. Sandberg wonders why more women don’t go and do likewise. Well, if you have kids, it’s probably because you’re running soccer carpool, buying the birthday gift, getting a long-overdue haircut, etc. etc. (Fathers who are involved with their kids’ lives will face similar challenges.) Sandberg diagnoses women’s inability or unwillingness to be that “weekend warrior” as a lack of confidence, but if you’re a parent, more often it’s the simple chaos and unpredictability of home life. Yes, we can and should lean in. But the times we can drop everything on a moment’s notice are rare. Our lives don’t turn on a dime.

Did you read Lean In? What did you think?


Image is from the Tumblr Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies, a collection of cringe-inducing stock photos that go with women-having-it-all articles. 


11 thoughts on “Negotiating, Finding a Mentor, and Burning the Midnight Oil: More Thoughts on Leaning In

  1. Liz Perraud

    I bought it and started reading. After hearing some criticism about it, I put it down. You’ve inspired me to start reading it again.

  2. Kris aka Rev Dr Mom

    I read it because our (female) bishop invited a group of women clergy to get together and discuss it — a group of women ranging in age from early 30s to mid 60s. What amazed me in the discussion was that almost without exception we each remarked that we hadn’t planned to read the book (for a variety of reasons but many cited how much hype the book had received) but we were SO glad we did. And then shared some anecdote — often painful — exemplifying some point that Sandberg had made.

    I found the book and our discussion empowering. And it led us to think of how we can support each other as women in leadership as well as spurring many of us to commit to a woman clergy monthly book club — the kind of thing we often talk about and then don’t follow up on –but we DID and we’re headed into our third gathering.

    As it happens I have a mentor/coach who is awesome and also an older male clergy person — I have urged him to read Lean In because as awesome as he is, there are some things about my experiences that he just doesn’t get as a successful male.

    Incidentally one side effect of gathering the women clergy of the diocese together was the realization that even in a diocese that *appears* to have a lot of women clergy [because we tend to show up at things more??] we actually are still the minority AND occupy far fewer of the big steeple positions Shocking I know. Still hard to see the reality…

    1. Bob Braxton

      perhaps both language and logic have a phallic-sy – and if we spoke of “Big interior” churches instead of Big Steeple (Freud’s cigar – church erects organ): “The most important part of a Gothic cathedral is its interior space where space and light melded to create an image of God’s house.”

    2. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Interesting Kris.

      We have a lot of women in our presbytery too, in fact we may be the majority. But I suspect there’s still a leadership differential and there’s certainly a pay gap.

      Heck, I work part-time and so do a lot of my gal pals. I support every one of those decisions on the individual level. And also lament that the result of those decisions when aggregated is that we haven’t made near the progress towards equity that we could have by now.

      I like that Sandberg talks about child care as an investment. Women who leave the work force when their kids are young earn less over their whole lifetime—they really never catch up. But so often the calculation is limited to the economics of the here and now: “I’d have so little left of my paycheck after day-care, so screw it.”

      And yes, there are intangible benefits to staying home while the kids are young. And I get that. But she also points out that women who work outside the home are spending as much time per week interacting with their kids as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. She calls this “intensive mothering (parenting?)” which made me LOL.

  3. Bob Braxton

    Life as woman and especially as mother of multiples sounds about as tough as I could (or not) imagine. As partner of a clergy person since her 1980 ordination, I have lived “more than my share” of weekend care-making and before I retired, there were many, many Monday mornings when I experienced great relief to be privileged to return to (my paid) “work” – which was mild, indeed, when compared with weekend Sabbath and home and Sunday(s) duties – even for a hapless male. If “lean in” means after work volleyball and happy hour then “No” I did not – and as a consequence in at least one of my decade-plus “career” stints, the organization helped lean me out. Of course, there are many other issues such as a abysmal (metaphorical) low level of (or lack) social skills, despite never taking sick day(s), being very early at work each day (by choice) and giving and giving in my job at paid work, characteristics which do not change in retirement (2009 July 1).

  4. Deborah

    I’ve been resisting reading this book and may reconsider. In the meantime, I appreciate your comments on mentoring, especially the paragraph beginning “I’ve met so many women…” I think you are on to something there – that many don’t know exactly what they are after when they ask for help — or they do know, deep down, on an intuitive level that remains unexpressed and intellectually unexamined and so, later, becomes frustration, disappointment, etc. The contrast in communication styles between women/men is interesting but I think there is also a youth/age contrast. In campus ministry I hear that frustration and disappointment often (“I emailed my professor 6 hours ago and still haven’t heard anything!”) and there it seems to be more a function of limited perspective.

  5. Traci

    I read it and loved every page of it. I liked the chapter on mentors as well. My mentors have been (no exaggeration) the single most important key to my success in ministry up til now, and I can’t wait until the day when I can give back by mentoring others… Seems like mentoring is more of an organic thing, but it’s interesting to think about how we as clergy women might formally help bring forth those mentoring relationships…

  6. Jennifer

    I’m only partway through, but I’ve wondered a lot about something that so far Sandberg has only just mentioned–which is that, perhaps, when women become mothers, or are otherwise asked to take on a significant caring task, such as taking care of aging parents, many of us are given a deeper insight into life, and into what is really important–and reach the conclusion that perhaps reaching that corner office isn’t really what matters. Maybe many women realize/decide that taking care of others who are wholly dependent on them matters more and/or is more fulfilling. That isn’t exactly my story, but I’ve experienced more of it than I ever expected back when I worked 80+ hours/week and traveled all over the world for work, BK (before kids). It doesn’t necessarily mean a mother decides to leave the workforce entirely, but maybe it leads a teacher to remain a teacher, seeing the value in impacting kids directly, one-on-one, rather than reaching to become a superintendent, or the Secretary of Education. That said, Sandberg is pointing out, I think, that even if it is the case that many women find a “deeper meaning” path, the people in the corner offices, so to speak, are still making the decisions that affect us all, and so more of them need to be women. And I find that hard to argue with…

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