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Can Women in Hollywood Lean In?

by Melissa Silverstein
March 13, 2013 2:00 PM
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Unless you've been under a rock over the last week you have read an article about, heard a talk show about, and seen a panel discussion about Sheryl Sandberg's new book Lean In.  I pre-ordered my copy (which I have never done before) and have been soaking in the conversation.  I also watched her on 60 Minutes which you should check out below.

While not everything in the book will apply to everyone (how could it?) and it is clearly about rich women's first world problems, you gotta give her some props especially for being so up front about wanting to jump start a feminist conversation.  When was the last time a woman of her stature framed these issues in a feminist context?  She is touching a nerve about many different things, but most especially about how women themselves  self-censor and don't put themselves forward or "lean in" to take on more responsibilities and leadership positions.  

This is something all women can relate to whether or not they are not leaning forward because they are futurecasting their lives when they will have kids, or whether they just want to get along better in the workplace and not be seen as too aggressive.  It is about how we internalize sexism and how that effects how we act in the world.  It might not be overt discrimination at all times that holds us back but a lifetime of processing gender roles and expectations leads people to make decisions based on those roles that have seeped into our brains.  Sometimes no matter how strong you are, you still have the battle with yourself.

She makes some really important points.  The first thing she says in the 60 Minutes piece is that men run the world and that the women's revolution is stalled. And that we need to acknowledge it to change it.  And then Norah O'Donnell asks if she is trying to reignite the revolution and she says: "I think so."  Bold.

This looks to me to be as much of an exercise for Sandberg in owning her own power as it is for her inspiring other women.  She said she feels so guilty about the choices she has made that she has written a whole book on it.  But she pushes through and reminds us how young these gender roles start for girls and how that is not ok.  My favorite quote from the piece: "I want every little girl who [is told] they're bossy to be told instead, "You have leadership skills."  I can't tell you how many times I got called bossy and how it was always made to seem to be something I should be ashamed of.

Sandberg was smart in that she used Hollywood writer Nell Scovell to help frame her messages for the masses.  So the question here is does this message resonate for women working in Hollywood?  Are women leaning out when they should be leaning in or is it pretty much just external factors holding women back?  How do we get more women in leadership positions?  How do we get women not to worry about being liked by everyone.  (In Sandberg's first job review from Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook he told her that she worried to much about what other people thought of her and that it was holding her back.)  

What I love about this is the great conversations it is stimulating.  Not only just from women but from men too.  I had a really terrific one in the rain in the park yesterday with a guy who has two kids talking about the expectations placed on men.  Would love to hear people's thoughts on this as they get through the book and have conversations about it.

Sheryl Sandberg: "I Am Not Saying Women Can Do It All Themselves" (BuzzFeed)

The 10 Most Controversial Things Sheryl Sandberg Just Said About Women (Yahoo)

Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' offers a feminist view from the top (LA Times)

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  • B. Gomez | March 15, 2013 9:10 PMReply

    Remind me again about all the women Nell Scovell has mentored and supported in her career. Anyone who knows her, knows the answer. Her track record working with women in the business is dismal--ask anyone on Sabrina. I can't think of a less appropriate choice for a collaborator, unless Nikki Finke was willing.

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | March 15, 2013 5:49 PMReply

    Why do I care? Because Jane Addams is my role model & anyone who says this gets my FULL support (see page 157-158): "Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized. Leaders of the women's movement--from Susan B. Anthony to Jane Addams to Alice Paul to Bella Abzug to Flo Kennedy to so many others--spoke out loudly and bravely to demand the rights that we now have. Their courage changed our culture and our laws to the benefit of us all... Now I proudly call myself a feminist." BRAVA :-)

  • Erin | March 15, 2013 12:11 PMReply

    As ususual, I love reading your insights and how you are framing this, Melissa.
    I have been following the articles and conversations sparked by the book (even before it came out)... and when I stopped trying to decide if Sheryl was "right" or "wrong" and just tuned into her message, I had an Aha: She is demonstrating her own advice. Sheryl Sandberg is "leaning into" this conversation, come what may. She is not self-censoring based on the blow-back (and some of it has been fierce). That takes courage, but more importantly, that stance will move her along with her goals, regardless of whether everyone agrees with her. I get it, I like it, and I appreciate the modeling.

  • Kathy | March 14, 2013 12:52 AMReply

    Our whole culture has to lean in. If Sandberg want more equitable marriages, she and her husband need to use their $$$ to start an organized egalitarian marriage movement. They need to use their money to criticize sexist marriage counselors and demeaning dating advice. They also need to produce movies and sitcoms that subtly promote equal relationships; they need to sponsor public service announcements that say something like "Don't Be That Guy" to husbands who slack off or just help out with housework./

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | March 15, 2013 5:43 PM

    Seriously, Kathy: This is exactly what Sandberg & her husband have set out to do. From the book jacket: "Sheryl Sandberg is donating all of her income from this book to establish Lean In, a nonprofit organization that encourages women to lean in to their ambitions and to other charities that support women." Ladies, she really doesn't have to do this but she's doing it because she really believes this is the time for THIS conversation. So can't we give her the benefit of the doubt & try to be a bit supportive? Sheryl: You Go, Girl!!!

  • MJ | March 13, 2013 5:57 PMReply

    I'm willing to accept responsibility for the ways in which I have failed in being assertive in Hollywood. But, in my experience, the more I try to lean in, the more I feel actively held back--and not just by men. I think that there needs to be a second side to this discussion that encourages us to examine and be accountable for the ways in which we negatively respond to women who depart from those damaging social norms that train us to be passive and well-liked by all.

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | March 15, 2013 5:36 PM

    I agree with you too Kathy & more important, so does Sandberg! I just picked up my copy at O'Hare Airport (where I had to ask for it because it was shoved to the side of the counter & not out on the main table) & even the preface is pure inspiration: "This is the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation. The chicken: Women will tear down barriers once we achieve leadership roles... The egg: We need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into those roles in the first place. Both sides are right... Let's agree to wage battles on both fronts." So ladies: Stop "discussing." Read the book & I think you will WANT to "Lean In" too!

  • Melissa Silverstein | March 13, 2013 6:54 PM

    I totally agree with you.

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