Lean With It/Rock With It

From amazon.com. Been a while since I gave a book recommendation…

I feel like a bad feminist. And not in the Roxane Gay sense. More like in the literal sense.

A female colleague of mine recently was talking about a “Lean In” group she was running on campus, and I asked her, “I’ve heard of that…I kinda know it’s about women in the workplace, but beyond that I have zero clue. What exactly are you leaning in…to???”

She gave me an example of a way *I* had taught her to “lean in.”

Deep breaths, because I’m still not sure what “lean in” is after this description, or really what newsflash I was providing…

Every week our chair gives us a newsletter/update. What academic calendar dates are near; when grant deadlines and seminars are coming up. And at the end as a postscript, he chooses 1+ people in our department to thank/acknowledge for something special.

In my close(r) clique of colleagues, this woman talking to me was the first of our cadre to get recognized in the postscript. So I sent our group a text saying, “CONGRATS on the call out!”

She said, “Thanks, but…I’m not even sure how he knew about [what she was acknowledged for].”

I said, “Wait…why? Why didn’t YOU tell him? Please tell me it’s in your annual faculty activity report?!”

My colleague was telling me that text taught her a lot. That she never would have thought to tell our chair about this. That I thought more like a man. [Side remark: if someone instead had told me “you think like a woman” or even had told a man that they “think like a woman” I suspect that would be deemed sexist, insulting, and generalizing. Yet somehow…her remark was OK. In fact, it was a compliment. A compliment given to me by the leader of a lean-in group! How about that for circular logic?] That I was somehow manly enough to recognize that I needed to flaunt my own accomplishments because otherwise they might not be acknowledged. That I taught her she had to be her own advertiser.

Thankfully, I had a face mask on so she could only see my eyes. Because my mouth was open.

Why would you think that ANYONE ELSE would do that kind of checking up on you?! Of course you have to be your own advertiser! Of course you have to let your chair, who oversees dozens of people, know what it is you are doing that sets you apart. And when you’re told annually to write a faculty activity report…why would you NOT put everything down? Those reports will itemize any and all activities and often will make events grander than they actually were; “I visited Princeton in August 2019” could actually mean “I was on a road trip to Connecticut, wanted to avoid the tolls, and really had to use the bathroom so I pulled into one of Princeton’s academic buildings.”

My colleague continues to talk. She says that in her “Lean In” group women talk about the frustrations of feeling under-qualified for a position, not applying because they feel under-qualified, but then seeing a man less qualified than they were get the gig. Again, I must be missing something. Of course you’re not going to get a position if you don’t apply! They should not be shocked anyone else got the position. As for the chosen applicant being a lesser-qualified male…I would think this type of scenario would be a very quick lesson. The woman should immediately learn next time to apply, because clearly if a lesser qualified man could get it she’s got to be in the running. And all of this, of course, is assuming the woman who didn’t apply was actually correct in her assessment of what qualities to what degrees were needed for the job.

Why this has to be more than a five-minute discussion is truly beyond me.

I have to give my colleague, and my lack of poker face, points: she could sense I still did not understand. She talked about how female students at her “Lean In” will complain about group work settings where they offer a suggestion, it is ignored by the group, and then later when a man suggests the same thing it’s taken seriously. This was closest to something I could relate to: I’ve been in situations EXACTLY like the ones the students are describing, and they are rather frustrating. But you know what my reaction always was? I’d say to the group, “I’m sorry…were y’all deaf five minutes ago?!” If these women sit around and say nothing, if they don’t stand up for themselves, what do they expect? And more importantly, why do they expect it? This is almost like dating: if you don’t think you’re good enough, why are you surprised someone else doesn’t treat you like you’re good enough?

Note that I am not saying that my colleague isn’t doing something that (a) is encouraged by the university (b) is important to her and something about which she is passionate or (c) is apparently needed. If nothing else, it should be abundantly clear that someone like me, for instance, is not the person to be involved in such a seminar.

Also from amazon. As I haven’t read it…can’t recommend one way or the other.

But I still was confused. Later, on my own, I looked up this “Lean In” movement. In speaking to other friends about this, it seems the non-academics were less aware of the entire concept, which is interesting because it comes from a non-academic source and academics are actually notorious for being ignorant on non-academic matters. So allow me—the self-proclaimed noob—to explain and paraphrase to anyone academic or not who is also unaware. “Lean In” is the pre-colon title of a 2013 book by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. “Lean In” is like “Who Moved My Cheese” in the sense that it’s a business self-help manual with a catchy title one only truly understands from reading the book. The purpose of “Lean In” is to highlight that, still ever yet, there are social barriers preventing women from succeeding in business. That women need to take on more leadership roles and women need to be more assertive.

Despite only being seven years old, this movement has been criticized by many. Like Michelle Obama, who in a total out-of-character move swore when discussing Lean In, saying “It’s not always enough to lean in, because that s**t doesn’t work all the time.” Business Insider has an interesting article on the matter too. They reference Duke and Harvard surveys on the impact of Lean In on women, saying that one side effect is that “lean in might prompt people to view women not only as the solution to the problem, but also as the cause of it.” (emphasis added by me)

And of course, reading THOSE comments led me down an even deeper, darker, more dangerous rabbit hole. While referring to #MeToo, I can’t help but wonder how much this also applies to #LeanIn (and indeed some articles, like on market watch, mention both movements). But The Harvard Business Review described a study in 2018 that showed that increasingly men in business want to exclude women from social interactions, are more reluctant to have one-on-one meetings with women for any reason, and are more reluctant to hire women for jobs that require close interactions with men. [There was a 2019 follow-up survey where the numbers actually were “worse” than in 2018]. Why? The studies hypothesize it is specifically because of these movements, which men see as exclusionary and vilifying and possibly ruinous to their own career.

This probably is going to have to be a separate blog post at this point, but my worry after reading all of this is precisely what these business articles highlight. What backlash, overt or otherwise, will the male-dominated world that is math release upon the Rosie-the-Riveters/Leaning-In women? What will the boys-only clubs with their greater numbers and longer-standing history do to the up-and-coming, contrarian girls-only clubs? How will this not turn the “battle of the sexes” into a full-blown war?

I’ll end with a personal story that since meeting with my colleague I have not been able to shake from my mind. I was at a conference, and I was on the job market for the first time. Ironically, it was the same year “Lean In” came out. I was talking to an older gentleman (and I looked it up: he’s STILL THERE #tenure) at a place that was hiring that I thought wouldn’t be the worst fit for me. We were getting along. But suddenly his face changed. He said he had to ask me a very serious question. He asked, “Do you go to any of these ‘women in [fill-in-the-blank] conferences’?” I said: “I only go to those that do not exclude men and those which provide some, however minimal, funding for men who want to go.” He asked me why. I said, “Men who want to go to these conferences are allies to the women. They should be included and should be introduced to the women they’re trying to support.”

And you know what his response was?

“Send me your C.V.”

This entry was posted in bias, books, community engagement, conferences, mentoring, minorities in mathematics, outreach, women in math. Bookmark the permalink.

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