Lean (In) On Me, or, How I Never Read Sheryl Sandberg’s Book But Wrote 1200 Words About It Anyway

20 Sep

by Brownout Betty



The Stop Requesters are, we’re happy to report, a group of gainfully employed gals. As budding young DC lady-professionals growing up in the shadow of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, this means that we have all read and memorized Lean In. JK, of course we haven’t. Because we live in the ADD internet age where memes have replaced books, it means that we:

a)    have all read the Sheryl Sandberg parody of the crazy sorority girl email and laughed knowingly at it despite not having read the book

b)    use “Lean In” as a punchline when discussing life as a young female professional

c)     have made tipsy promises to each other at happy hour that we’re starting “Lean In” at that book club we’ve been talking about that we’re legit starting NEXT WEEK. SERIOUSLY GUYS I’M SENDING AN EMAIL TONIGHT, and our first book will be “Lean in”. BUY YOUR COPY.

Hahaha, yeah right. If we do start a Book Club, the book is obviously going to be This Town, and if anyone actually reads it for said book club they’ll probably be disappointed because we’ll just end up drinking wine and eating hummus like the shitty (but awesome) girls we are.

Since that book club clearly isn’t happening, SR readers, I would like to share my latest personal Lean In story. A Lean In Story, by the way, is a story about the workplace in which gender dynamics sort of figure in, but not necessarily in the way Sandberg describes, and in which I dilute the term Lean In to describe basically anything related to gals at work. Sorry in advance for bastardizing your concept throughout this post, Sheryl, but hey, at least you got us discussing these important issues. Kinda.

This Lean In story is actually about a negative interaction with a female colleague. Basically, Brownout Betty has managed to make an enemy at work, and this enemy happens to be both my superior and a woman. I’ll call her Meryl, both because it reminds me of Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada and because it rhymes with Sheryl, so it sort of conjures Sheryl Sandberg’s evil twin who leans out. Ok, anyway. Meryl is a contractor working with us on some projects, and the other day, I had the gall to suggest that we approach one such project a different way. She totally lost it on me. You know that email that you always WANT to send to that one colleague – in which you tell them exactly what you’ve thought of them for months and how awful they are to work with- but always think the better of it before hitting ‘send’? Yeah, Meryl didn’t do that. She absolutely reamed me out in a long and – I hate to use the word given the gender connotations, but oh well –  bitchy email, the likes of which I have never seen before. You might even say Meryl leaned in – hard.

I’ve heard from a number of women in my field that it’s actually women that do the most to hold other women back in the workplace. Obviously there are lots of caveats to that. But the basic idea is that women, for whatever reason, tend to be complacent or perhaps even active in perpetuating unfair gender roles, and – much more damningly IMO – put other women down for making choices related to work/family/life balance that they wouldn’t necessarily make. All of these criticisms ran through my head as I read Meryl’s email on my phone over and over as I waited in line for lunch. To me, it felt that Meryl was doing something similar – asserting her own power in a stereotypically ‘manly’ (read: aggressive) way, but in the process she was putting another female, and a younger, subordinate one at that, in the tough position of having to either be walked all over, or run into the (male) boss’ office and complain that my feelings were hurt.

My feelings, by the way, were hurt. They were hurt as fuck. I’m man enough to admit (jk! Using that phrase is definitely not leaning in!) that the email made me cry. I rarely cry, but I seriously just lost control. And then I felt even shittier because crying in response to something like this was SO not Leaning In.

I’m being glib, obviously – in case it wasn’t clear, I’m purposefully misusing the term in this post to make a point. But seriously, Lean In is, to me at least, is inextricably tied up with this nagging notion that strong professional women have to be strong and professional in the way that men are, and not do woman-y things if they want to be taken seriously. That’s why it was interesting when, upon asking my guy friend at lunch what he would do in my situation, he offered a potential course of action followed by, “But I really have to think about it – it’s so different for you because you’re a girl.”

My knee-jerk reaction was to fire back, “No way. Tell me exactly what you would do, and that’s exactly what I’ll do too. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a dude, or at least it shouldn’t.”

But it got me thinking. Does it matter? Should the fact that I’m female color the way I approached the situation? How relevant was my friend’s advice, anyway? My sense is that it’s something of a moot question because the fact that I’m female had already colored the situation, long before I decided what to do. It clearly affected the way I interpreted the email and certainly also the trajectory of my discussion with my male friend. And this of course isn’t a knock on him, but once he commented that he wasn’t sure what he would do as a girl in the situation, the damage was definitely done – I was so pissed off that this gender dynamic existed at all that I was basically ready to draw on a moustache with my eyeliner, charge into my boss’ office, and do exactly what a dude would do (whatever that was).

This, probably.

I know I’m offering up a lot of questions but no real conclusions about how gender played into this situation, whether it did at all, and whether it should have. That’s because I don’t have any answers, but it was certainly an experience that got me thinking. Maybe I’ll actually read the book now.

In case you’re wondering what happened with Meryl, the story actually has kind of an awesome epilogue – bear with me for getting really office-politics-y as I explain this. It turns out Meryl was so mad she blind copied a bunch of our colleagues, including my boss, on the email. Unprofessional? Yes. Passive-aggressive as fuck? Absolutely. But it worked out in a way, because raising the issue with my boss now wasn’t tattling or asking someone else to fight my battles for me, because she had already gotten him involved.  I told him I was upset and he agreed that the email was out of line. As the person who contracted the project out to Meryl, he sent her an epic reprimand demanding that she not treat his employees this way. I have a feeling I won’t be getting emails like that for quite a while.

By the way, I seriously feel kind of bad that I’ve taken a serious, important concept like ‘Lean In’ and used it here to describe basically anything I want, including women being confrontational or assertive. But I can’t resist one more: in the end, Meryl leaned in so hard she fell right into the abyss.

Let that be a lesson, ladies.


2 Responses to “Lean (In) On Me, or, How I Never Read Sheryl Sandberg’s Book But Wrote 1200 Words About It Anyway”


  1. Are We Networking, Or…? | STOP REQUESTED - January 23, 2014

    […] readers will recall that my very first contribution to this blog was a riff on Lean In in which I predicted that none of us would ever actually read it. Well, I […]

  2. Destroying the Drunk Text | STOP REQUESTED - February 12, 2014

    […] choices this new year- bad eating habits, netflix binging, overworking, moving on from the past, reading more books… the list goes on and […]

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