Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Image of DeVoss, Haas, ClarkFrom left to right: Dánielle Nicole DeVoss; Angela Haas and Erin Clark Frost; Pamela Takayoshi and Carolyn P. Handa; Stephanie Vie


book cover of Sandberg's book


Kris's Literacy Narrative

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Kris first read Sheryl Sandberg’s (2013) Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead on a cross-country flight from Detroit to Reno. Heading to her annual reunion with her four best friends from high school, Kris had been told she should read the book as someone who was perceived to be a woman who had “leaned in” throughout her career. As a department chair about to head into her ninth and final year in this major leadership role, Sandberg’s book resonated not just with IT culture but also with academic culture. Squirming in her seat at 36,000 feet, Kris began to question for herself: “Lean in? How about Lean Back?” We include this anecdote because we hope it resonates with readers of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology and Pedagogy, primarily rhetoric and composition and computers and writing specialists who, because of their expertise, and regardless of their gender, have often been called upon to lean in, as writing program administrators, graduate program directors, department chairs, and specifically as technological change agents, who perform labor that is often both invisible and devalued. As Krista Ratcliffe and Rebecca Rickly (2010) contend in their introduction to the collection Performing Feminism and Administration in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, scholarship in our discipline “exposes how feminists have administered writing programs, writing centers, learning centers, and other university sites, many doing so at their own peril within institutions that value publication over administrative service” (p. viii). Similarly, Kris’s accompanying audio narrative chronicles how her early efforts to learn HTML often put inordinate service demands on her time as a pre-tenure faculty member at two institutions.

Although Sandberg’s story represents an individual journey, it is in many ways reflective of the earlier or concurrent women speaking about their experiences as programmers, business owners, and STEM professionals in Janet Abbate’s (2012) Recoding Gender. Not unlike Abbate, Sandberg’s book represents the personal journeys of many women colleagues and friends, not just her own. Throughout Lean In, Sandberg chronicled her emerging role as feminist champion, sharing both the personal struggles in maintaining work–life balance that she has experienced as the one of the few women chief operating officers (COO) in the informational technology (IT) industry, maintaining her marriage and her role as a mother of two. For herself and for other women in IT, Sandberg acknowledged the various double binds, including that many women lean back because they presume that something will give, either work life or home life, that will make them not able to assume leadership responsibility. In this process, Sandberg is honest about the lack of support structures for working women, tying that to the presumption that the average worker at a Google, a Yahoo, or a Facebook is male and would not need amenities such as a parking spot closer to the building during pregnancy, something she herself only realized when she became pregnant for the first time.

Sandberg also documented the various attitudes that reinscribe the glass ceiling for women in a range of industries, but especially IT. She began her book with the overwhelming negative statistics surrounding women’s labor and leadership in IT and her lament that there are simply not enough women in power, something she became increasing conscious of as, increasing in rank, she found herself the only woman in the room. This is clearly due to a reinforcement of gender assumptions that often put women in the position of doing more work, of helping more, without recognition or reward because this is a traditional role that women want to assume because of their "natural" instinct to help and collaborate. Sandberg admitted that failure to assume these roles in favor of a more assertive self-promotion of skills and abilities can lead to dislike and distrust of women employees and thus hinder rather than help their advancement.

Certainly, Sandberg is not alone in this concern about the limited numbers of women, from the boardroom to the developer to the classroom, women in STEM, and in particular the technology portion of that now ubiquitous acronym that defines the knowledge gap between the United States and other cultures. No one can deny Sandberg’s status as an influential leader in IT and her authority to speak about gender and labor dynamics, given her status as the 9th most powerful woman in the world in the recent 2014 Forbes poll of the top 25 female leaders and her recent profile in the comic book series Female Force, published by Bluewater Productions (Davis, 2014, n.p.).

Indeed, how do women become such a force in the IT industry and beyond? For Sandberg, this question is partly connected to opportunities for more focused but genuine mentoring and sponsorship of women, something Sandberg credited for her own success. In her chapter, “Are You My Mentor?” Sandberg emphasized the need to shift perspective from “Get a mentor and you will excel” to “Excel and you will get a mentor” (p. 68). This moves the mentoring relationship from the appearance of handholding to a more reciprocal relationship where mentors benefit from the commitment and the knowledge of mentees. Regardless, Sandberg acknowledged the difficulties of establishing mentoring relationships that provide equal opportunities to men and women, both in terms of who gets mentored versus who gets ignored, and who is expected to mentor women, invariably other women, which can lead to yet another layer of invisible labor common to women’s working lives. Given the male majority in the tech industry, women are in a double bind, greatly in need of mentors but with very few role models. Thus, as Kris shares in her narrative, she initially learned code from a male systems administrator, a supportive mentor who was surprised to find that an English professor had the interest and the commitment to develop a new skill outside her discipline.

On the surface, it may seem that the unique stories of women in information technology, including Sandberg’s, have less do with our ongoing concerns both in rhetoric and composition in general and computers and writing in particular about inclusion, mentoring, and sustaining the future of the field. Yet there are definitely parallel discussions as we consider how we promote and maintain welcoming spaces for women working with a range of technologies. Regardless of where these discussions take place, at conferences, in caucuses, and recent podcasts such as This Rhetorical Life’s ("Episode 23," 2014) feature of the women of #cwcon, we must acknowledge that our experiences are not necessarily representative of those of other women, lest we reinscribe the structures that continue to dominate the IT industry and a status quo mentality that positions women employees in companies like Facebook and Google as perpetual minorities.

Despite that initially exasperated read on the long plane ride out West, Kris re-read Lean In through a slightly more positive lens thirteen months later, several months after concluding a highly stressful administrative role as a department chair and at a time when she benefitted from the privilege in the form of a paid administrative leave, an opportunity to lean back that many women, even in the academy, do not possess. And perhaps that is the inevitable problem with Lean In as a supposedly feminist text: Sandberg, perhaps rightly or wrongly, identified her primary audience to be women “fortunate enough to have choices,” those privileged enough to decide when and if to “lean in” (p. 8). As a result, Lean In may represent an empowering narrative for some women, but it is a White, upper-class narrative that neither accounts nor apologizes for the diversity of experiences it excludes.

For that reason, it is vital, as Kris herself noted in the recent This Rhetorical Life podcast on the "Women Scholars of Computers and Writing" ("Episode 23," 2014) to not presume that any discussion of women’s histories or women’s work in the field represents a singular experience. Kris concludes her audio narrative calling for the importance of making visible the differing experiences of women in a spirit of equity and access, even acknowledging the power dynamics within our own field that empower some and alienate others often on the basis of not only gender but also race, class, sexuality, and ability as well. Thus, while both Abbate (2012) and Sandberg’s (2013) texts represent important opportunities to talk back by providing counter-narratives of the IT industry, we must understand that women’s histories of technology should move beyond the individual to the collective and from the local to the global. In this way, our work becomes a form not of complicity with more dominant narratives but a form of resistance and political action. To that end, we’ve included Radhika Gajjala’s and Yeon Ju Oh’s (2012) collection Cyberfeminism 2.0 for its emphasis on how power “plays not only in different locations online but in the institutions that shape” (p. 1) those locations and the experiences of them, ultimately by focusing on more “decentered, multiple, participatory practices” (p. 1) among a more diverse group of cyberfeminist scholar–activists than either Abbate’s or Sandberg’s histories and stories represent.

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