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Panel discusses “Lean In”

Alex Winegar | Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Four Saint Mary’s professors participated in a panel discussion Wednesday analyzing Sheryl Sandberg’s book titled “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” as part of Gender and Women’s Study Week.

Assistant professor of English Ann Marie Alfonso-Forero said although she would recommend the book to young college women, her main critique was that Sandberg’s book only focuses on heterosexual white working mothers.

“The book really in many ways fails to address the structural inequalities between American women that make it much harder for women of color, working class women or single mothers,” Alfonso-Forero said.

Laura Williamson Ambrose, assistant professor of humanistic studies, said she agreed that the book does not apply to other groups of women.

“There’s tons of stuff she doesn’t deal with. She is an extremely wealthy white woman living in the corporate world, and I wonder what happens to her argument and evidence when you consider non-white upper class women,” Ambrose said.

The panel discussed a moment in the book where Sandberg describes a dinner party she attended where the host, a powerful white man, did not listen to another woman who was a minority, and she later talks to a minority man to see if he noticed the ignorance as well.

“It’s so interesting that she mentions it and she says he told me he empathized because he is Hispanic and he has been treated like this so many times and then she stops. She just moves on,” Alfonso-Forero said. “And it’s an interesting moment where she could have ruminated on this lightness of experience but she stops and holds herself back. … She doesn’t stop to reflect on it.”

Jamie Wagman, assistant professor of gender and women’s studies and history, said Sandberg does explain in the book that she is writing it for “women fortunate enough to make ends meet and take care of their families.”

“She says this in the very beginning explaining who her audience is,” Wagman said. “Although she does think her argument can be embraced by women in every workplace. I disagree here. Advice about leaning in the boardroom and piping up about a working women’s needs to her employers do not apply to every single woman out there.”

Wagman said Sandberg’s $300,000 annual salary jeopardizes her credibility.

“And many say it does [question her credibility] because it puts her out of touch with women who can’t necessarily afford childcare or day care services or camps. And she does have a staff of nine just working in her household. Some of those statistics do put her out of touch from the masses,” Wagman said.

The panelists did, however, like Sandberg’s opinion that superwomen are the enemy. In other words, having it all is a false premise for women and men, Ambrose said.

“[This idea] resonates especially powerfully for you as college students because as Sandberg says, ‘Each of us makes choices constantly between work and family, exercising and relaxing, making time for others and taking time for ourselves.’ So in other words something’s always got to give and women aren’t the only ones making sacrifices and making choices,” Ambrose said.

Assistant professor of women’s studies and political science Sonalini Sapra also brought up an issue with Sandberg’s opinion that the workplace needs a change for women, especially with maternity leave.

“I think some of the issues where I had problems with some of her regards with the external barrier. She doesn’t really talk a lot about things that need to change for women to have a better quality of work,” Sapra said. “She could have talked more about paid maternity leave. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the developed world that does not offer paid maternity leave.”

Regardless of this issue, Sapra said she did like Sandberg’s book overall.

“Like I told many of my colleges, I actually found a lot of what the book said really, really persuasive and interesting that this idea from someone with such a large platform is talking about men being equal partners,” Sapra said.

“Also bringing up things like equity and bringing up the fact that women don’t negotiate as much as men do for salaries and that they are very fixated on being likable as opposed to not being seen as likeable. So I really admire that she is using her considerable clout to help women.”