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Stop Selling Me Porn

A rash of books and articles instructs career-minded women on how to live their ideal lives. Why I've stopped listening.


Ladies, there’s a new genre of porn, just for you.

Don’t worry: It’s highbrow, headlined by big-company executives and prominent academics. It’s alluring. Like all effective porn, its message is at once empowering and degrading. Maybe, you think, you can achieve the same pleasure and satisfaction as the star. But that little voice remains in your head, reminding you that you’re no porn star: you’re not nearly that attractive, capable or carefree.

It’s career porn, and it’s slinking its way into bookstores, blog posts and cocktail party conversations from Silicon Valley to Wall Street.

The latest star of this genre is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose book and countless media appearances instruct career-minded women to simply “lean in” and do more at work. Worried about balancing a high-pressure job with the demands of family? Lean in. Unsure about whether you’re qualified for a promotion? Just lean in.

Sandberg’s new book, titled, of course, “Lean In,” was released this week and is already perched comfortably at the top of the Amazon bestseller list. In the last few weeks, she has been pretty much everywhere, pitching her philosophy and the corresponding social movement she hopes to spawn. The media, ever hungry for new fodder in the Great Mommy Debates, has gamely complied, granting interview after interview. (Sandberg’s press people reportedly ran out of advance book copies to distribute to reporters and columnists.) At the conclusion of a breathless 60 Minutes interview last week, the interviewer asked Sandberg if she would consider running for President. It was, as best I could tell, a serious question. Sandberg demurred, but not all that forcefully.

Sheryl Sandberg is whip-smart, fiercely driven, and deserves her success. Same goes for Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, who’s been taken to task for her parenting choices as well as her decision to eliminate telecommuting at Yahoo. Whatever tactics these executives chose when they were building their careers, they clearly worked. Good for them. I don’t know too many people who wouldn’t welcome more highly-qualified women in executive, decision-making positions.

The conversation that has swirled around them, reaching a fever pitch in recent weeks, isn’t really about either of these women. It’s about our reliance on porn--on some kind of fantasy-land solution that appeals to many but applies to very few. In many ways, Sheryl Sandberg’s book is no different than Cosmopolitan magazine. It assumes that women need to be told how to run their lives--and that some sort of prescription will work. It assumes that whether you’re a single parent or married, attended Harvard or community college, work on Wall Street or are starting your own business, all you need to do is follow a certain set of rules. Just lean in. Then we will achieve orgasm, we will take leadership roles at work, and we will read a story to our children every night.

Rest assured: Like all porn, this is fantasy. Single moms can’t urge their husbands to “lean in” to their families, as Sandberg suggests. Women who are starting businesses can’t just sign off at a certain time every day. I would venture that if you gathered a few super-powerful American women in a room--let’s say Sandberg, Mayer, Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey--they all would say something different about how they got to the top of their respective professions. They would all have different approaches to the roles they negotiated, the hours they put in, and how they handled family obligations. And that’s the way it should be. Just like some men swear by a four-hour workweek and others say you can’t make it to the top without sleeping at the office, there’s no single, prescriptive solution for success--for either gender.

Instead of being told that I need to raise my hand for every assignment but somehow still leave every night at 5:30 (seriously, Sheryl, how is this logistically possible?), I’d rather we acknowledge that there’s no single solution that works for all of us. Some of us will find we’d rather work a few more in-office hours but be more present when we’re home with our families. Others will take the opposite approach. Some of us will push for more assignments every single day. Others just won’t have the energy.

We’re lucky--these are our choices to make. So, please, everyone, stop telling us how to make them.

Last updated: Mar 15, 2013

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