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Does Leaning In Actually Work For Women At The Starting Line?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, the New York African Film Festival is getting under way. The festival is in its 20th year now, so we're going to talk about the stories being told by a new generation of African filmmakers. That's coming up.

But first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on hot topics with our panel of women journalists, commentators, bloggers and activists. And Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," is certainly a hot topic. This book has sparked a lot of debate about why there aren't more women in leadership roles, especially in business and also other enterprises; and what women themselves can do about it.

But that got us to thinking about how her message is resonating with women who are at different stages of their work lives, especially at the beginning of their work lives. So we've gathered a good panel to talk about this. Viviana Hurtado is one of our regulars. She's blogger-in-chief of the Wise Latina Club. Pooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza; that's an online Q&A platform for college students. And Kimberly Foster blogs at ForHarriet.com. She's a senior at Harvard University; she's majoring in African-American studies.

And what's great about this is, we've got somebody in their 20s, somebody in their 30s, and somebody in their 40s. So thank you all so much for joining us.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks, Michel.

POOJA SANKAR: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Viviana, let me start with you. You've heard, of course, about Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In." She talks a lot about what women need to be doing to change things, but I just want to play a short clip of an interview that she did with my colleague, Renee Montagne, at MORNING EDITION. Here it is.

SHERYL SANDBERG: We call our little girls bossy. Good old playground. Little girls get called bossy all the time, a word that's almost never used for boys. And that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says, that's great. When a woman does that same thing, she'll get feedback that says things like, your results are good, but your peers just don't like you as much. Or, maybe you were a little aggressive.

MARTIN: So, Viviana, I want to start with you, and ask, do you feel that Sheryl Sandberg's argument resonates? Does this make sense to you? And I'm also curious about what your readers are saying, what the bloggers at your site are saying.

HURTADO: Yeah. Well, I think what's really exciting about his - and, you know, I like to think of the whole "Lean In" debate as part of the larger Mami Wars debates that we have - and, you know, in previous incarnations of this, it just seems that all we do is have shouting matches. Can women have it all? Yes or no? You know, are you Ann Romney or are you Hilary Rosen? Stay home and bake cookies or go out and forge a career? And it leaves your average working mom, or even a single working mom, just feeling frustrated and burning both ends of the candle.

What's different about "Lean In," in my view, particularly the "Lean In" communities online, is that we're actually speaking about this in the context of trying to change the mindset. So, for example, I'm thinking about the power that we, as women, have. If you look at advertising, only three percent of creative directors are women, but 85 percent of those making the consumer decision spending decisions are women.

So I think, if we start to think about the mindset that we have as women, think about these numbers, and ban together what I like to call lean on me. And that's something that Latina women are really comfortable with. We know that strong individuals are inextricably tied to strengthen communities, and families and neighborhoods.

MARTIN: So you found it inspiring and helpful?


MARTIN: OK. So Pooja, what about you? You're kind of following in Sheryl Sandberg's path, if you don't mind my mentioning that. I mean that in a good way. You're an entrepreneur. You're a wife. You're the mother of an infant. What do you think about her argument?

SANKAR: I felt very validated by reading her book. There are many moments that guilt overwhelms me. I have an eight-month-old son and I wished I could spend more time with him. Today, his grandparents spend a lot of time raising him, taking care of him, but at the same time, I have a company. I chose to start a company four years ago while I was in Stanford Business School. At that time, I was not married. I did not have a child.

And, today, I know we're impacting the lives of over a million students who are learning, using Piazza. It's too difficult today for me to take a step back and so I continue to run the company, but I felt great reading her book, saying, you know, she hasn't met a single woman who feels comfortable with the choices that she makes, and I know I fall in that, as well.

MARTIN: Kimberly, what about you? You're just getting ready to start your career, but I understand that you're not sure you see success in the same way that Sheryl Sandberg does. Talk to me about that.

KIMBERLY FOSTER: No, I don't. I think that I'm a daughter of the "Leaned In" generation. I grew up seeing my mom, and aunts and mentors really aggressively pursue incredible professional careers that I admire so much, but I saw them make certain sacrifices and make certain decisions. And, as I'm deciding to embark on my career, I just don't think I want to have to make those sorts of compromises.

So the Sheryl Sandberg model of scaling the corporate ladder and that type of success, just doesn't resonate with me.

MARTIN: You know, I was interested in that perspective, Kimberly, because, you know, we were looking at a 2012 study by Bentley University. It found that only 20 percent of so-called generation Y women - that's your generation - said that they wanted to follow in the footsteps of female leaders in their workplaces. And why do you think that is? Is it because you feel like the cost was just too high?

FOSTER: Exactly. I think that seeing the stresses that trying to play a game that wasn't necessarily meant for women to win, seeing those sorts of stresses of trying to pursue a career and balance the family and juggle all of these different things, it just made me think that life is not appealing. I want to be free. I want to be flexible in my career, and I want to be able to make my own rules and set my own agenda.

MARTIN: Pooja, what do you think about that?

SANKAR: Well, I have a pretty interesting background, in that my dad grew up in a village in India. He was the first from his village to ever leave and come to Canada on a scholarship. He saw the importance of education that allowed him to leave, kind of, the poverty that he was born in and he made sure my brother and I had a top education. So when it came time for me to prepare for college, my dad really encouraged me to lean in and take the hard sciences, so I studied computer science.

At 22, I got married. It was a traditional arranged marriage that actually did not work out. And I remember, you know, that life, that Pooja - it was extremely challenging. I was not respected for who I was. I was not accepted for who I was. I was actually expected to have a very, very quiet and submissive personality that was not me. And I was not in a situation to do much because it was a traditionally arranged marriage. But, because of my education, I was able to take the decision to leave that, because I knew, long term, it would not be healthy for me.

At 26, I left that. And, since then, I have really learned to stand up for myself, believe in who I am and, since then, I've embarked on, you know, a startup after that, joining Facebook as a software engineer and then eventually starting a company because I had a computer science background.

Since then, I've actually found that I'm on much stronger footing. I have a husband who respects me and encourages me to be very strong.

MARTIN: You know what's fascinating about your story, Pooja? It's that you - I want to reference something you said earlier. You said that one of the things you found comforting about Sheryl Sandberg's book is she validated your own self-doubt, in a way. You said that there were a lot of second-guessing.

One interesting data point you didn't mind sharing with us - I hope you don't mind my sharing it - is that, you know, at one point, you were balancing starting up Piazza, starting a new relationship with the person who became your husband, taking a graduate school class, and at one point, you failed an entrepreneurship class even as you were starting your own business. And talk about stress. You know, talk about stress.

So that does lead me to wonder, is Sheryl Sandberg, in part, setting the bar so high that you feel you are a failure if you don't try to do all those things at once?

SANKAR: Well, you know, how I read her book is, if I had read it when I was 18 or 22, maybe something would have resonated with me, maybe just validation. Even if it's just validation, that is a good thing for me. You know, at 28, when I was starting a company, in business school and had just met Shyam, who's now my husband, you know, I knew that something had to give. So I leaned out of business school and I leaned in to my relationship with him and I leaned in to my company.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a Beauty Shop roundtable. We're talking about Sheryl Sandberg's call to "Lean In" and we're interested in what younger women are getting from that Facebook CEO's message.

Viviana, what about you? You have worn so many hats in your life. I do want to mention you are a scholar, yourself. You have a doctorate. You're a blogger. You've been a reporter for a big, you know, news organization. You know, I ask, do you feel like you will be - that you are required to, kind of, set a certain standard of professional excess in order to justify - what - all the sacrifices that you've made in your own life?

HURTADO: Well, I think what Pooja says is spot on. I think that, you know, she was talking about the choice that she was able to make in her life, to lean out of school and lean in to her company and to her relationship. And here's the thing. Even women - and this is what really, I think, resonated in my Facebook page - was women saying, yeah. I've had to lean out, but guess what? Even women who are so-called leaning out of their careers and in to their family, in to their marriages and to a business, they need support, as well. And that's what's so important about this conversation that's happening.

I can't say that I have had a lot of institutional support when I've leaned out of my career or I've leaned in to it.

I've had a lot of personal support from this incredible family that I have and network of close friends and mentors such as yourself, But you know, when you think about a larger institutional corporate culture, I can't say that that's the case.

But one thing that is very important is that women like us, women like Kimberly, like you, Michel, like Pooja - we are role models whether we like it or not and that's a burden that can be very difficult to have to carry sometime, but it's crucial that we do. Why? Because, when we do get to that perch of success, there's a whole lot of chicks around us that are chirping and they're chirping really loudly and, sometimes, we need to tend to them, to fly back to them with attention, with affection and sometimes some tough love. That's called mentoring. Right?

MARTIN: Kimberly, what about you? I don't know. Do you feel like you are a role model?

FOSTER: That's really scary. I'm just trying to figure out my life. Like I said, I'm a young woman. I know kind of what I want my life to look like, but I do think sometimes women say to me, I see where you're going and I see where you're headed and I just want you to know that I'm proud of you. And I appreciate that, but I think it's really important for people who see me and people who are encouraging me to know that I'm just trying to figure it out.

MARTIN: What about - Kimberly, you know what I'm curious about? Do you think your men are having the same angsty conversations that we are about whether they can have it all, whether they can balance family, life and professional success? Because, you know, I have to tell you that I see a lot of the men in my life making some serious sacrifices, too, and that almost never gets talked about.

FOSTER: No. Honestly, I don't think so. One of the things that I discovered early on in my undergraduate career was, when young women at Harvard would get together, we would talk about the kids that we wanted and we're going to find husbands and how we're going to juggle career and family, and the men would get together and talk about the next career move, the next internship, how they were going to buy a fancy car and a big house. I just don't think that these sorts of stresses weigh on their minds the way that they do for young women.

MARTIN: Pooja, do you mind if I ask about your husband? Does he - I mean, clearly, if you are leaning in to your career, I presume he's taking up the slack somewhere and I know that you mentioned your son's grandparents are very helpful, which is great, but...

SANKAR: My husband and I both are actually leaning in. He's running a company, too. We have his parents, who have moved in with us. They moved out from Orlando, Florida once they found out I was pregnant. They have both leaned out of their careers. My mother-in-law - she took grand-maternity leave because I was not able to take maternity leave, having run a company, and today, my father-in-law - he has really cut down his hours at work so that he can spend time with my son.

MARTIN: Interesting. So how did - do you feel that your husband - I'm sorry. I know we're going to ask you to speak for him here and he's not here. Do you feel he has the same kind of guilt about not spending time with your son that you do?

SANKAR: He absolutely does. He has to travel a lot for work. In fact, right now, he's on the East Coast. He and I both feel very guilty and then, when we are at home, we know that it is quality time with our son.

MARTIN: What's going to fix this? Let's just fix this thing right here, all of us. Pooja, what do you think? I mean, what - or are we just whining here? That these kinds of conversations and second-guessing is just part of the deal if you want to accomplish something and have a family, as well, or any outside interests.

SANKAR: Well, Sheryl...

MARTIN: What do you think?

SANKAR: Sheryl, in her book, says guilt management is as important as time management and I completely second that. My husband and I - you know, if we ever do need to, in the weaker moments, talk to each other about our feelings, we do. But, for the most part, we know it is a decision, a compromise at all moments and we completely relish the moments we do have with our son without second-guessing at those times.

MARTIN: Kimberly, what about you? Do you mind if I ask? I'm not asking you to - I am asking you to - let's just fix this thing right here. You're a senior at Harvard. You can do this. What would make things better? Or do you just feel that perhaps this is just the price of being alive at this exciting moment in our history, that there's this kind of - guessing and second-guessing and rethinking is just part of the job of your generation and all of ours?

FOSTER: Well, I have to say, first of all, nobody ever told me that it was more important to be liked than to be successful, so there's a real disconnect for me with Sheryl Sandberg on that point. But I think it's important to remember that success in the workplace isn't just about certain behaviors. It's not just about women changing the way that they look at themselves.

I think what we're missing from these sorts of discussions is history and structural inequality. So I don't want young women to feel like the burden is all on them and that their failure is just about - they didn't believe in themselves enough or they didn't step into their own power. There's a lot of things that need to be fixed.

MARTIN: OK. Viviana, a final thought from you, too?

HURTADO: And we can address those inequalities by doing, by recognizing that we have strength in numbers and also by strengthening our collective as women, as members of networks, such as families and neighborhoods. We really - we can do this. It is within our reach but it is going to require us - if you want to say leaning in, leaning in, for some, means standing out for myself.

MARTIN: Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief at the website, the Wise Latina Club. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Pooja Sankar is founder and CEO of Piazza. That's an online question and answer platform for college students. She was with us from the studios at Stanford University. Kimberly Foster is a senior at Harvard who's majoring in African-American studies. She blogs at ForHarriet.com. She joined us from the studios at Harvard University.

Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us. Good luck to each of you in your endeavors. I hope we'll speak again and you can tell us how you're leaning in and making it all work. Thank you all so much.

HURTADO: Thanks, Michel.

FOSTER: Thank you.

SANKAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.