Reading “Lean In” from Mozambique

Reading “Lean In” from Mozambique[1]

I am writing this from Mozambique, where I am on sabbatical while my spouse has taken a post with the Canadian embassy.  Like many women, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” with interest – compelled by both the subject and the hype that surrounded her book. I was prompted to complete this piece by the news that Sandberg will release a new version of “Lean In,” tailored to the needs of graduate students. 

While reading “Lean In” from Mozambique, I was reminded of the stark contrasts of our world, and of the very different realities that face the world’s women.  Mozambique has enjoyed high economic growth rates (averaging 7-8% over the last decade), but it still ranks 184 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index – third from the bottom.  Mozambique remains desperately poor: its 2012 GNP was 14.59 billion USD.[2]  In the first 9 months of 2013, Facebook’s revenue (where Sheryl Sandberg is Chief Operating Officer) was 5.2 billion USD,[3] which places its 2013 revenue on course to be roughly half of Mozambique’s GNP.   

In 2009, 79.3% of the Mozambican population lived in multidimensional poverty,[4] while 60.7% lived in severe poverty.[5]  According to Forbes, in 2011 Sheryl Sandberg made 31.5 million USD,[6] and is estimated have a net worth of 400 million USD.[7]  That same year in Mozambique, almost 60% of its 25 million people had incomes below the international poverty line of 1.25 USD per day[8] – below 450 USD a year – which was approximately 0.000015% of Sandberg’s income.

There is no doubt that Mozambican woman “lean in” – in 2012, 86% of Mozambican woman participated in the labour market.  However these women face tremendous obstacles.  Only 1.5 percent of the female population has any secondary education, which significantly limits their earning potential.  Too often girls have babies instead of going to school. In 2012, the adolescent fertility rate was 124.4 per 1,000 live births.  Giving birth is also very dangerous:  the maternal mortality ratio was 490 deaths per 100,000 live births.  Partly a result of high maternal mortality, women’s life expectancy at birth is estimated at 50 years.[9]  Basic human rights of women and girls are also not upheld: a 2003 survey indicated that 56% of women aged 20-24 had been married before the age of 17, and 18% before the age of 15.[10]  Polygamy is common, further reducing women’s power and autonomy in their family structure and within their community.  Rates of abuse are a signal of rampant gender inequality: More than 50% of Mozambican women have suffered from physical, sexual or psychological abuse within their intimate relationships.  Not to belabour the point, but women here face a different set of challenges than those of us worried about advancing in our chosen careers.  

Sheryl Sandberg did not write “Lean In” for the women of the developing world.  Nor do I dismiss the significant obstacles women in developed countries face while struggling to balance important family obligations and very legitimate career aspirations.  I also struggle with these issues, and despair that I am not as productive or as professionally active as I could and should be.  But reading “Lean In” from Maputo provides an interesting perspective on my own career anxiety as well as Sandberg’s analysis and her prescriptions for a better world. 

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Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has generated heated discussion in classrooms, boardrooms, coffee shops and our homes.  She argues that a key barrier for women’s career advancement is an internal one:  women lack sufficient leadership ambition.  While women graduate from North American universities in record numbers, and dominate most universities’ honour roles, women are not equally represented in top positions in either government or corporations.  Sandberg argues that women themselves have partly undermined gender parity in senior management:  women take conscious as well as unconscious decisions that impede their career advancement.

Sandberg proceeds to provide advice for women on how to “lean in” and take their rightful place as leaders in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.  She chooses to focus on ‘internal barriers’ to career advancement as the realm of the personal has not received sufficient discussion, debate, or reflection.  She acknowledges the existence of external barriers such as discrimination and access to childcare, but cites this as the ‘chicken and egg’ problem – external barriers (the chicken) cannot be removed until women remove internal barriers (the egg) and take leadership positions.  Sandberg maintains her value-added is to open a public discussion of how woman can change their behavior and their attitudes to become more successful.

Sandberg’s philosophy is that when women believe that they should be at the table, that they have the right to have their voices heard, and that they have the ability to be the ‘boss’, these women will live a much different life.  Women will then aspire to leadership positions and consequently more women will head institutions, top corporations, and government departments, and sit as elected officials.  Sandberg provides practical advice for how women can build their confidence and more effectively navigate the workplace.  True to its argument that ‘the answer is you,’ the advice in the book and the accompanying website examines what women themselves can do to advance their careers.  Sandberg also subtly addresses an important issue – women need to be kinder to one another and help each other within the workplace.

Sandberg’s book has prompted both vitriol and reflection.  Debate has focused on both the virtues of Sandberg’s analysis as well as her ability to relate to the circumstances of the vast majority of women.  Yet despite its shortcomings, Lean In has made an important contribution to public debate, kick-starting an invaluable discussion of women’s role in contemporary workplaces.  It is worth a read.  But is Lean In of any particular relevance to students of international affairs?

Yes, for two main reasons.  First, women are graduating from international affairs programs in record numbers.  Women dominate my classes at NPSIA – in numbers as well as academic performance.  Yet upon graduation, women’s dominance appears to diminish. The non-profit group, “Women in International Security” estimates that despite women making up almost half of entry-level positions in jobs related to peace and security, women have less than 30 percent of senior leadership positions within those organizations.  “Entry into the profession is not necessarily translating into advancement into leadership positions in key peace and security institutions.”[11]  Female graduates from NPSIA would no doubt benefit from Sandberg’s descriptions and prescriptions to ensure that their talents and skills are recognized and sufficiently rewarded.

Second, Sandberg echoes some common perceptions about the power of women and the importance of gender equality within the international arena.  These claims include:

  • “[A truly equal world with more female leaders] would be a better world.”
  •  “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
  • “Women will tear down external barriers once we achieve leadership roles [. . .] we’ll become bosses and make sure all women have what they need.”
  • “If we can succeed in adding more female voices at the highest levels, we will expand opportunities and extend fairer treatment to all.”[12]

Sandberg’s assertions fall into two main categories: the world would be a better place with more female leaders; and second, that these leaders would inevitably help to advance women’s equality throughout society.

Are such claims true?  Researchers have documented a persistently strong relationship between gender equality and countries’ well-being.  Analysis by the World Economic Forum highlights that gender equality is strongly correlated with economic competitiveness, GDP per capita, and human development.  States with higher levels of women’s social and economic rights consistently exhibit lower levels of corruption.[13] Cross-national quantitative analysis suggests that states with higher levels of gender equality exhibit lower levels of violence in international crises, are less likely to initiate the use of force,[14] and are less likely to rely on military force to settle disputes.[15]

Critics contend that gender equality is an endogenous variable – deeply embedded within a wider social and economic context.  It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to prove that promoting gender equality will have an independent ability to produce social well-being (causal) rather than being a by-product of such well-being (correlation).  That being said, the democratic peace hypothesis has sparked a flurry of democratization programs around the world, and the causal role of democracy in that relationship is also deeply endogenous.  Given that the benefits of gender equality, providing commensurate attention to promoting the rights of women makes infinite sense.

But is Sandberg’s second point – that female leaders automatically work to improve the situation of women – accurate?  Are all female leaders as progressive as Hillary Clinton, who promoted gender equality both inside the State Department as well as globally?  In the international arena, the evidence is decidedly mixed:

“[. . .] the women who reach top political positions do not always seek to promote women as a group.  Leaders like Gandhi, Meir, and Thatcher invoked masculine styles of leadership and did not take steps to improve women’s status during their tenures in office.  In contrast, others, like Bachelet, Johnson-Sirleaf, and Gro Harlem Brundtland [ . . .] actively recruited women to cabinet positions and have advocated women-friendly public policies.  Similarly, the women who achieve seats in parliament through gender quotas express varying degrees of commitment to women’s issues.”[16]

Sandberg’s failure to acknowledge the mixed record of female leaders worldwide (and perhaps also among the private sector) exposes a major flaw with the book.  Focusing so exclusively on ‘internal barriers’ or the realm of the personal, in the absence of sufficient acknowledgement of external or structural barriers, is slightly dishonest and somewhat dangerous.  Women worldwide have proven that they are up to the task of adapting to their environment and ‘leaning in’ – although Sandberg’s prescriptions are undoubtedly helpful.  But what they really need is equality and equity.

Once they learn to ‘lean in,’ is access to the upper echelons of power within the reach of all smart and savvy women?  Probably not.  Within North America, the employment status of your parents – and the friends of your parents – remains a critically important determinant of your own career prospects – particularly if your parents are leaders within their professional fields.  Class and race are also stubborn barriers to vertical mobility. Many women cannot ‘lean in’ to the table, as many have to ‘jump up’ to the table first.  What are these structural factors that facilitate and impede vertical mobility for women?  What public policies promote gender equality, and facilitate vertical mobility for women and their entry into leadership positions?  I believe that Sandberg owes it to her readership to provide a list of those policies, such as child care, minimum wage, the ability to belong to a union, strong legislation protecting their rights, affirmative action, and equal pay for work of equal value among others.

Sandberg opens the book describing a policy change she spearheaded at Google.  She arranged for pregnant women to have parking spots nearer Google’s front entrance.  Sandberg proudly repeats this anecdote throughout the book.  While undoubtedly of significant assistance to pregnant women with cars, parking places closer to the door is not the same as paid maternity leave, access to affordable childcare, or the promotion of job-sharing.  Does Sandberg believe that these policies are important for women’s advancement?  What has she done to implement these policies within her workplace or advocate for them in corporate America?  Sandberg acknowledges that she stands on the shoulders of feminists who came before her – but those feminists did not limit themselves to the realm of the personal.

This leads me to my final reflection on Lean In.  In our drive to advance to the top of our respective ‘heaps’, are we forgetting our obligation to each other and to society as a whole?   Do we aspire to leadership positions just for our own benefit?  What should women do when we get to the top? Is it our responsibility to work to build this ‘better, more equal world’ that Sandberg references? What policies would most effectively achieve this goal?  Perhaps Sandberg does not want to wade into political, philosophical or ethical arguments.  But when she asserts that the world would be a more equal world with more women leaders, it is her job to at least explore how women can make that world possible.   With such an addition, Sandberg’s analysis could be more relevant for women everywhere – including graduates of NPSIA, as well as the women of Mozambique.

By Valerie Percival

References

Caprioli, M. (2005). “Primed for Violence: The Role of Gender Inequality in Predicting Internal Conflict.” International STudies Quarterly 49: 161-178.

CSIS (2013). “About WIIS.” Retrieved 2 December, 2013, from http://csis.org/programs/wiis/about.

Facebook (2013). “Facebook Reports Third Quarter 2013 Results.” Retrieved 28 November, 2013, from http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/AMDA-NJ5DZ/2762498398x0x701521/ccb18475-2b8a-4bd2-a342-f2962e6f8e9d/FacebookReportsThirdQuarter2013Results.pdf.

Forbes (2013). “Forbes Profile: Sheryl Sandberg.” World’s Most Powerful Women. Retrieved 27 November, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/profile/sheryl-sandberg/.

Hudson, V., et al. (Winter 2008/09). “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States.” International Security 33(3): 7-45.

Jalalzai, F. (2010). “Beyond Hillary and Benazir: Women’s Political Leadership Worldwide.” International Political Science Review 31(1): 5-21.

Marshall, M. G. and D. R. Marshall (1999). Gender Empowerment and the Willingness of States to Use Force. Ocasional Paper Series #2. C. f. S. Peace. Vienna, Center for Systemic Peace.

Rankin, J. (2013). Sherly Sandberg Sells $90m of Facebook Stock. The Guardian. London.

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. New York, Knopf Doubleday.

UNDP (2013). “Human Development Report Indicators.” Human Development Report. Retrieved November 28, 2013, from http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/indicators/38906.html.

UNDP (2013). Mozambique: Explanatory Note on 2013 HDR Composite Indices. Human Development Report 2013. New York, United Nations Development Program.

UNICEF (2013). “Mozambique: Child Protection.” Retrieved 27 November, 2013, from http://www.unicef.org/mozambique/protection.html.

World Bank (2012). “Data: Mozambique.” Retrieved 28 November, 2013, from http://data.worldbank.org/country/mozambique


[1] The inspiration for the title of this blog piece comes from the book “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” by Azar Nafisi.

[2] World Bank (2012). “Data: Mozambique.” Retrieved 28 November, 2013, from http://data.worldbank.org/country/mozambique

[3]Facebook (2013). “Facebook Reports Third Quarter 2013 Results.” Retrieved 28 November, 2013, from http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/AMDA-NJ5DZ/2762498398x0x701521/ccb18475-2b8a-4bd2-a342-f2962e6f8e9d/FacebookReportsThirdQuarter2013Results.pdf.

[4] The Multidimensional Poverty Index is calculated by UNDP by assessing deprivations in the same households in education, health, and basic standard of living.  If the household deprivation score is 33.3 percent or greater, that household is multi-dimensionally poor.

[5]UNDP (2013). Mozambique: Explanatory Note on 2013 HDR Composite Indices. Human Development Report 2013. New York, United Nations Development Program.

[6] Forbes (2013). “Forbes Profile: Sheryl Sandberg.” World’s Most Powerful Women. Retrieved 27 November, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/profile/sheryl-sandberg/#.

[7] Rankin, J. (2013). Sherly Sandberg Sells $90m of Facebook Stock. The Guardian. London.

[8] UNDP (2013). “Human Development Report Indicators.” Human Development Report. Retrieved November 28, 2013, from http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/indicators/38906.html.

[9] UNDP (2013). Mozambique: Explanatory Note on 2013 HDR Composite Indices. Human Development Report 2013. New York, United Nations Development Program.

[10] UNICEF (2013). “Mozambique: Child Protection.” Retrieved 27 November, 2013, from http://www.unicef.org/mozambique/protection.html.

[11] CSIS (2013). “About WIIS.” Retrieved 2 December, 2013, from http://csis.org/programs/wiis/about.

[12] Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. New York, Knopf Doubleday.

[13] Hudson, V., et al. (Winter 2008/09). “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States.” International Security 33(3): 7-45.

[14] Caprioli, M. (2005). “Primed for Violence: The Role of Gender Inequality in Predicting Internal Conflict.” International STudies Quarterly 49: 161-178.

[15] Marshall, M. G. and D. R. Marshall (1999). Gender Empowerment and the Willingness of States to Use Force. Ocasional Paper Series #2. C. f. S. Peace. Vienna, Center for Systemic Peace.

[16] Jalalzai, F. (2010). “Beyond Hillary and Benazir: Women’s Political Leadership Worldwide.” International Political Science Review 31(1): 5-21.

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