Leaning In and Bossy Women

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean InA lot of words have been spoken, written, blogged and Tweeted since Facebook COO @SherylSandberg first launched her new book, Lean In, Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Book reviews, editorial and op-ed commentary, TV and radio interviews, emails, water cooler conversations, and many other opinions have dissected Ms. Sandberg, the book, and its message. Most of this writing has been done by women about another woman, and many of them have criticized her for recommending actions that only the very rich and powerful, like Ms. Sandberg, can afford to take.

The Missing Piece

I have not read the book, but this is not about the book. It is about the reactions—and, in Part 2, the missing piece that no one is talking about. 

This morning, I saw @Soledad_OBrien interview Sheryl Sandberg on Starting Point (@StartingPtCNN) and the two women mentioned this missing piece—but only indirectly. No one seems to be addressing it head on.  Well, okay, I’ll do that—but in two sections. First, I’ll talk about the reactions.

As Ms. Sandberg and Ms. O’Brien mentioned this morning, most of the commentary about the books has been written by women. The men, whether they are editors, reviewers, CEOs, or academics, have been silent. That shows good thinking on their part, as there is little to gain for a man to jump into this discussion and quite a bit to lose.

Hardball for Women, Pat HeimBut why are women so eager to regroup and fight yet another battle in the mutually destructive Mommy Wars? Why are we so eager to declare someone else as a bossy woman? Many years ago, I read an excellent book called Hardball for Women by Pat Heim, Ph.D., that explains this dynamic clearly and effectively.

It has to do with how women are hardwired and socialized. When little girls play in groups, they learn how to get along with one another, how to be fair to everyone, and how to negotiate differences in games that seldom have a goal. No one wins at dolls or tea party or dress-up, for example. Ms. Heim says, “Decisions among girls are reached by group consensus. When several friends have different views about the best way to set up a dollhouse or at whose home to play dress-up, they learn to talk their difference out, take turns, and compromise. This format of negotiation has as its goal a win/win (as opposed to a win/lose) outcome.”

Power Structure for Girls

Another factor has to do with the power structure in groups of girls. “Girls also grow up in flat organizations rather than hierarchies.They learn to cooperate within this structure. Rather than having a coach or a top banana tell them what to do, girls cooperate in a web of relationships for the sake of preserving the friendship. It doesn’t take long for a little girl to discover that if she wants to be the leader and she starts pushing her playmates around, relationships will suffer; friends will call her bossy and avoid her. As a result, she tries to keep the power dead even.”

Work time, family time, balanced lifeMs. Sandberg, like many professional women before her, broke this code. When a woman writes a book like this, it doesn’t make any difference how well-educated, rich or successful she might be. In fact, the richer and more successful she is, the worse the reaction because those things make her stand out from the rest of the “group.” In this case, the group is the bulk of working women in the country, who have enough problems and challenges without some ‘bossy rich girl’ telling them what they should be doing.

Who Does She Think She is?

I saw this dynamic play out first-hand at a barbecue many years ago. It was in the yard of a friend’s house and I was talking to several other women when a very tall thin woman approached our group. She strode up to us and began speaking with the unstated confidence that we would cease our conversation and start listening to her. My reaction was to think, “Who is this woman and who does she think she is?”  Many of us took a reactive step back. The newcomer was oblivious to our body language and continued to dominate the group dynamic. Put off by her ‘pushiness,” I left the group as soon as I could do so politely and I think many of the other women did so as well. Later, I asked my hostess who the tall woman was.  My friend laughed and said, ‘Oh, you know her.”  I replied that I certainly did not and would have remembered her if we had met before. “We all worked together at XYZ Corporation,” she said. “But her name was (blank) and she was a man, then.”

Aha! There was the explanation. The newcomer had not been socialized as a woman and did not know the unwritten, unspoken rules by which women play.  Thinking men’s rules to be the only rules there are, she behaved as she would have done in her previous gender and thus stuck out as bossy.

Ms. Sandberg, mentored and sponsored by powerful men, working among and directly for powerful men, has come across as a woman playing by men’s unwritten and unspoken rules. Working women are taking a reactive step back.This is unfortunate because Ms. Sandberg, like many of her predecessors, is simply trying to help make things better.

What we need to do now is stop bickering about “who she thinks she is” and whether the average working woman can live up to her message and start asking about the missing piece in this discussion. I’ll talk about that in detail in tomorrow’s post.

BTW: If you are a working woman, I highly recommend Hardball for Women. You will learn a lot of very helpful information.

One thought on “Leaning In and Bossy Women

  1. Having been at that same party and in the same group into which that newly made woman inserted herself, I recall things a bit differently. First, she was not thin; she retained her muscular frame, albeit with a more feminine shape in keeping with her new persona. Second, the primitive part of my brain stem recognized almost immediately that she was not originally a woman. She confirmed my subliminal impression when she shook my hand; I knew she had a man’s hand just from the conformation and grip strength. Lastly, I recall her trying to find a way to enter the conversation by making a comment and delivering it the way she thought a woman would. This felt off-putting to me, and I withdrew during a lull.
    I mention this recollection not because I want to be “right,” but because it’s an example of what I mentioned in a previous Facebook post: “Sexual attraction and the basic approaches men and women use to deal with each other and the world will always be issues in that highly artificial environment we call the workplace. As Captain Kirk once observed, “Yes, we kill. But, we’ve evolved to the point where we can say, ‘We’re not going to kill today’.” IMHO, that’s the point of learning how to communicate with the opposite sex and work together: the maturation and evolution of the species.

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