Sisterhood Blog

What Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' Speech Left Out

By Elissa Strauss

  • Print
  • Share Share
Barnard College/Asiya Khaki
Sheryl Sandberg at Barnard commencement, 2011.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s recent Barnard commencement address has become one of the most popular of the season. It has been linked to a quoted all over the Internet; the Forward excerpted it and so, too, did The New York Times. And right on.

Sandberg gave a no-nonsense, no apologies plea for feminine ambition. She reminded the class of 2011 that despite gains in education — she said that women have been 50% of college graduates since 1981 — men still run the world:

Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.

Sandberg’s two main pieces of advice to remedy gender inequality are for women to “think big” and believe in themselves, and to not prematurely curtail our ambitions because of the work/life choices we might have to make down the line when we have children.

She expressed a similar sentiment in her “don’t leave before you leave” TED speech. Overall I agree with Sandberg and hope that that those Barnard graduates took her words to heart. But I do think she leaves out one crucial point out.

Sandberg said:

Because what I have seen most clearly in my 20 years in the workforce is this: Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. … If several years ago you stopped challenging yourself, you’re going to be bored. If you work for some guy who you used to sit next to, and really, he should be working for you, you’re going to feel undervalued, and you won’t come back. So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.

The problem I have with this advice is the fact that it is hard to lean in, if you have nothing to lean into. By that I mean that even the biggest fireball of a woman — the one who is confident in her own greatness and forthright in her ambition — will at one point have to contend with the fact that if she decides to have a baby she will receive very little support.

Let’s say a woman does charge ahead full-force and lands a spot as a chief surgeon, makes partner in a top law firm, or becomes and editor at a major newspaper or magazine. What happens then if she decides to have a baby? Chances are, considering the dismal support young mothers receive from their workplaces and government and even — though it is getting better — their husbands, she will have to lean way, way back.

A study that surveyed maternity leave policies in 181 nations found that he U.S. is one of only three nations, along with Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, that don’t require paid maternity leave. For now women must rely on the good will of their employers to give them something that is required in places like Japan and Russia. As far as paternity leave — which should be on the negotiating table right next to maternity leave — well, it is practically non-existent.

And these legal and professional issues aren’t the only thing constricting young mothers. There is still an overriding cultural expectation that women will shoulder the majority of parenting responsibilities. Many women, from Tina Fey to PepsiCo. CEO Indra K. Nooyi, have complained that they are always asked about how they balance work and life while their male colleagues never field such questions. And while men have been pitching in more and more in the household, women report doing two-times as much housework, and three-times as much childcare. Even in my about-as-progressive-as-it-gets neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, my young father friends report that when they go on a walk with their baby everyone praises them for being such an amazing dad. My young mother friends report no such praise, just an occasional sense of camaraderie, or, less-frequently, judgment, from other young mothers.

So, if any Barnard graduates are reading this, I would like to add that on top of what Sandberg recommends, it is also in your best interest to get a little angry about the lack of support for working mothers and try to change things. Lobby for better maternity leave policies, support women in your workplace when they are negotiating their maternity leave policies, make sure you have a partner that is willing to fight for a decent paternity leave policy (sadly, to the tiny degree that that is possible), and if you have kids try, at least, to do only two-times the childcare. Yes, it’s still double, but less than the triple women do now.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sheryl Sandberg, Parental Leave, Maternity Leave

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.