Moms Lean In... Or Not

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, pushed buttons with her new book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In it, she advises young women to 'lean in' to their careers, and be more aggressive in pursuing leadership opportunities. Host Michel Martin asks the moms roundtable if they agree.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice and we're in the middle of Women's History Month and that's a time to look back on the struggles and achievements of women.

But, here at TELL ME MORE, we decided we wanted to talk about the complex ways women are living now and one of the biggest challenges many women face is trying to juggle work and family life. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg jump-started a new round of conversations on that issue with, first a speech, and now a book called "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead." And she writes that women's progress in a number of key areas of leadership is essentially stalled, especially in the business world. But she says that women need to lean in and devote more time, energy and attention to their work, but a lot of working parents say, if they lean in any harder, they might just fall over.

So who better to talk about this than our panel of moms? And they are Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's the editor of Mommy Wars. That's about the alleged tensions between stay-at-home moms and those who work outside the home. She's a mom of three. Connie Schultz is back with us. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author of "And His Lovely Wife" about her experiences on the campaign trail for her husband, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. She has two children and two stepchildren. Dani Tucker is an office administrator and fitness instructor, she's a mom of two. And Mary Louise Kelly is a journalist, author and mother of two. She's NPR's former Pentagon correspondent.

Welcome back to everybody. Thank you all so much for joining us once again.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: A pleasure.

CONNIE SCHULTZ: It's good to be here.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Hi there.

MARTIN: So, for people who missed the Sheryl Sandberg media blitz - I don't know how that's possible, but just in case, I will just play a short clip from her conversation with NPR's MORNING EDITION yesterday and I'll just play a little bit. Here it is.

SHERYL SANDBERG: I don't believe that everyone should make the same choices, that everyone has to want to be a CEO or everyone should want to be a work-at-home mother. I want everyone to be able to choose, but I want us to be able to choose unencumbered by gender choosing for us. I have a seven-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. Success for me is that, if my son chooses to be a stay-at-home parent, he is cheered on for that decision. And, if my daughter chooses to be - work outside the home and is successful, she's cheered on and supported.

MARTIN: Leslie, I'll just start with you because you say we need to listen to Sheryl Sandberg, even if we don't really like what she's saying or how she's saying it.

STEINER: It's true. She's one of the richest, most successful, self-made working women in the world. She's the gold standard of success at work-at-home and she's happily married with two young kids, so I think we do have to listen to her. I don't agree with a lot that she says and I don't agree with the way that she says it, but I am glad she's speaking out and I'm glad that we're talking about it today.

MARTIN: Connie Schultz, what about you? You wrote, I think, a pretty tough piece for the Washington Post Outlook section, about that. Tell us your take on this.

SCHULTZ: But you'll remember, I also said in it that I was going to buy the book for our three daughters and our daughter-in-law because I do think it is - I really think it can prompt a more important discussion. I wish she had cast a wider net and I said in the review that the book read as if it were written too soon. Perhaps the better phrase would even be too quickly. I would loved to have seen a chapter on moms who are trying to juggle staying at home, writing from home, working from home.

I would loved to have seen a chapter on single mothers. You know, she has a lot of emphasis on finding the perfect partner in life. Well, we know there are millions of mothers out there - millions of women working out there - who will never have that perfect partner. Does that mean they can't succeed?

I think she's full of good intentions, but has a lot of contradictions in the book.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? You work two jobs now, as the folks who listen to you regularly know very well, and you were a single mom for a long time. How do you feel about her argument that women have to lean in, really claim their success?

DANI TUCKER: Oh, it's a great argument for the women that she's talking to, but she's not talking to me. She's not talking to single women or single mothers. She has never been one, so you don't know what we go through. I mean, you know, one thing I liked was she said, you think - a young lady asked her, you know, is this book for single moms? What would you say to them? And she says, you know, knowing how to ask for a raise successfully. I'm not asking for a raise successfully. I'm happy to get a raise. OK. We're on two different planets.

MARTIN: And why is that? Is that because she's partnered or is it because she's...

TUCKER: Because she's rich.

MARTIN: ...rich? Because she's rich.

TUCKER: Because she's rich, because she can make decisions with billions of dollars in her bank account and I cannot. Big difference. When I don't have that money in my account that dictates, you know, my level of leaning in. OK? It just does, simple as that, period. So, to the majority of us who do not fit in this category, don't waste your money on this book.

MARTIN: OK. Mary Louise - well, I don't want to get in trouble with, you know, how you can read it anyway, but I won't do that. I won't say that. But, Mary Louise, you wrote a piece in The Daily Beast and I have to tell you that it was at the end of the day before I got a chance to read and the truth is, when I read it, I actually started to cry, so...

KELLY: Oh.

MARTIN: So why don't you just tell us about - you talk about the moment that you say you hit the wall in trying to balance your family and job. Not just, you know, that it was a tough day, but you hit the wall.

KELLY: I hit the wall, and I think I put it in all caps in the article. I - I mean I had a moment that probably anybody who has every tried to juggle - not jut kids and a job - but life in general and a job has had - and probably all of us have had many such moments - but for me the most dramatic one came when I was on assignment for NPR. I was covering the Pentagon and that meant traveling with the Defense secretary. And on this particularly day, we were in Baghdad, you know, trying to get across the city in Black Hawks, 'cause you can't drive across Baghdad - particularly not if you're the U.S. Defense secretary - too big a target. So we were about to take off, we're all in flak jackets and helmets, and my phone rang and I'm yelling, trying to hear it, as the helicopters are gearing up. And it was the school nurse at my youngest son's school saying he's really sick, come get him. And I said well, I can't. I'm in Bag...

And she interrupted me and said, no I mean he's having trouble breathing. We need to get him like maybe to the hospital, now. Can you come get him? And as I was trying answer, the line went dead and the helicopter took off. And it was one of those, you know, as I say, we've all had those moments. Those phone calls are not fun to get no matter where you are. But it was such a crystal clear, oh, man, this is not working. You know, the work I want to do and the mom I want to be, they are not simpatico.

MARTIN: And you left your job with NPR seven months later, and you're doing fine. I mean, you know, don't cry for you, Argentina. But you, you know, you're working on a novel, you've kind of recast your life. But is there, I mean this is where I think the rubber meets the road, and I think we have to ask, there are those - and Connie Schultz, I'll start with you on this - there are those who would listen to the same story and argue this is exactly why women should avoid certain kinds of jobs, particularly if they want to be mothers and have a rich family life. I mean, I think that would be the argument that Phyllis Schlafly would make, which is that biology doesn't have to be your total destiny, but it is something and that we maybe women of change, but babies haven't change - is I think what she would say.

So Connie Schultz, what do you say?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTZ: Well, I would reject that argument outright. I think there are so many different ways to compose a life, and I've got a piece coming out in "Parade" magazine in a couple of weeks about this because, you know, it's going to have a picture of me in the 1980s with giant hair, giant glasses, a bathrobe with my nine-month-old baby on my lap while I'm sitting at a Smith-Corona typewriter trying to meet my deadline, 'cause I was writing from home. And I also talk about my dear friend Dr. Gail A. McCracken, who at age 42, after raising her children - they were in high school at the time - she went off to medical school. And at age 60, she is a doctor, beloved to the women she treats. There are many different ways to configure these lives. And that's one of my concerns about this book and the discussions that are unfolding. And I appreciate your bringing it up, Michel, because I'm afraid an awful lot of women are feeling judged and excluded from this discussion.

MARTIN: Dani, I know that when I was saying to Mary Louise that, you know, people would listen to her story and say maybe this is why you just don't need to be in certain jobs if your priority is your family if you want have a family, if you want to balance those two. How do you respond to this?

TUCKER: I applaud her for what she did. She made the choice. I understand that, you know, a lot of women, you know, the feminist movement and wanting to be equal. But there's some things that just not going to be. You can't have it both, you know? And I applaud her for the decision she made because it was her child or the job. Bottom line. And we've had a discussion on the show a few more, a few other times; your child or the job. You know, the 40 - the lady she just talked about that was the doctor, she did the child thing, the mom thing then she went on to be a doctor. And that's OK. For the women want to have both at the same time, knock yourself out because that's exactly what you're going to do, knock yourself out.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTZ: Oh boy, is that true.

MARTIN: Leslie, what do you think about this? Because I'm also, I'm mindful of what Connie is saying too, which is why it is that the definition of success the traditional male definition of success? I mean, that's one of the things Connie wrote about in her essay, you know, she talks about how Sheryl - in her review of Sheryl Sandberg's book - she talked about how Sheryl criticized, say women partners, who didn't bill at the same rate as male partners when they felt that their work did not merit it. And she said well, they are sort of underselling themselves. But she saying maybe they're acting with more integrity. So Leslie, what do you say to this?

STEINER: You know, I think that it can be a little bit of a trap to say, well, the answer is that women should choose their own definition of success. Because the country we live in, I'm sorry, success is directly tied to economic independence and that gives you so much choice. And so I think it is a little bit of a slug in a tuxedo to say that, you know, women who stayed home and don't earn as much money and don't have as many choices that their life is richer. I find that to be really contradictory and paradoxical. And I, god, I want to have the kind of success Sheryl Sandberg has. I'm sorry; I want to have billions of dollars in the bank. She leaves work at 5:30. She's with her kids. She's happily married. I think that is great.

The thing that disturbed me the most about this, and I founded really deeply disturbing, is how incredibly insecure and self-deprecating Sheryl Sandberg is in her book and in all of her interviews. And I don't buy it. I don't think she's really insecure. I think that part of her success is that she's had to come off that way in order to not threaten the men in her life and make others women jealous. And she credits everybody with her success, her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who is 15 years younger, who doesn't have kids, who doesn't know anything about balancing work and family. She says it's due to her husband, her assistant, everybody else. And I just feel like, god, that's not the kind of role model I want. I wish she owned it a little bit more.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Aren't we the same people who criticized Sarah Palin for not acknowledging that she had all those other people helping her to get where she is?

STEINER: Well, I would...

MARTIN: And she talked about, she bragged about firing the housekeeper. And people were saying well, host cooking dinner when we are at those meetings working out the budget?

KELLY: Yeah, I criticized her...

STEINER: But I have to say on this show, I was a one person who liked Sarah Palin. So it's not contradictory for me.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Mary Louise?

KELLY: I want to jump in. I think Leslie makes a great point, but I want to push back a little bit on the definition of what counts as success. I wouldn't want to be Sheryl Sandberg.

TUCKER: I agree.

KELLY: I want her stock portfolio. Don't get me wrong.

TUCKER: I want that...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: But I wouldn't be trying to juggle what she's juggling because, you know, the thing that keeps coming back to me is, it doesn't matter if you are a billionaire, you still only have 24 hours in the day. She's making choices. She's in the office, she's at home. I get that she has control over being able to make it home for dinner, and I'm not sure that her assistant's assistant's assistant does, but she's still making choices I just wouldn't - I feel like so many of the women I know are combining work and family unusual ways - ways that my mom didn't have the technology or the support to do, and I think that counts as a success. They may not be running the company but they have a really rich life.

STEINER: I agree. Yeah.

KELLY: More power to them.

MARTIN: Dani?

TUCKER: I want to agree with her because if you look at it, I ask - you know, I always talk to my daughter and I throw it out there in my neighborhood to see what they know. OK, they don't know her. Not many of these corporate women or these women that are in her situation are our daughter's role models. Let's be honest. Most of them don't know them. I don't know this woman. Their role models are women that they see and that impact their lives and that they see doing these things. So to me, those are the women that are successful, OK? Having $1 billion, I'm sorry, does not in my opinion, make you successful. It makes you rich. There's a big difference, OK? I don't believe this woman is happily married, but that's just me.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I don't know about that.

TUCKER: Because you ain't never home.

MARTIN: Oh well, I don't know about that. I don't know. She's...

TUCKER: Yeah, but that's just me. That's just me.

MARTIN: OK. Well, Connie, what about her point that women still only hold 14 percent of executive officer positions. Only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And she's pointing out that, you know, worldwide, that progress, if you want to call it that, if you embrace that, has essentially stalled.

SCHULTZ: Well, I think those numbers are a very good argument for what she's trying to say. I also think however, I want to join in on this notion that there are many different ways to describe success. I really do think there are. And part of what this goes to is I've quoted the late poet Lucille Clifton many, many times in speeches over the years: What they call you is one thing, what you answer to is something else. And if you judge me by the standard of Sheryl Sandberg's income and the press she's getting right now, then my life definitely falls short. I feel like I lead a pinch-me life. I'm a working-class kid and a formal single mother whose opinion is on op-ed pages around the country.

There are different ways to define success and I don't want to feel defensive about my life. And I don't want so many women out there starting to think that somehow they fall short because their goal is not to, you know, she does come home at 5:30. She also admits she puts her kids to bed and she's back on the BlackBerry, she's back on the computer for hours. And I don't want women who think that they, when they set-aside real-time for themselves afterwards, that doesn't mean that they're not successes.

MARTIN: Mary Louise, I have to ask you this though, from the - and one of the other criticisms that people have of the book is that she doesn't really account for policy, that there are things that, you know, the country could do - countries could do - to allow families in general, not just women...

KELLY: Right.

MARTIN: ...to have more of what they want to do more, to expand more of their human, you know, potential. And I just have to ask you, since we're in the same business, is there anything that would have allowed you to stay in the game at that level?

KELLY: Well, you know, the obvious question that some people have asked me is, what about switching to the education beat or the arts beat or something that was interesting and stimulating and important, but where I wasn't in Baghdad all the time or getting crazy phone calls in the middle of the night because of a bomb going off in the Middle East or something.

MARTIN: But what about asking your husband to go get your son, which is what he probably did do?

KELLY: Well, in that case he did but, you know, he also travels all the time. And we had, it was like we were ships passing in the night or like, you know, another metaphor we kept like throwing the baton at each other as one of us raced in the house, and the other raced out. And I looked around and thought, god, our 20-year-old au pair is like the model of continuity and stability in this household and that's just, that's not the way I want to do it. It wasn't working for us. So, you know, I think one of the valid points she makes is lean in early so that you have some of these choices so that then you have a conversation, you do spin off into another career that maybe allows you to juggle - not more easily - but to have more of all the things you want.

MARTIN: Hmm. Dani, anything that she said resonated with you?

TUCKER: Who?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Sheryl.

TUCKER: No.

MARTIN: No. OK. Leslie?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Final thought from you?

STEINER: You know, I agree that she was very, very careful not to touch on policy, not to offend men or hold them or our society accountable. And I really disagree with her hypothesis that the problem lies with women. I think that there is a lot, a lot of really easy things in our society and companies and government can do to help women at every level in the workforce to have their own definition of it all.

MARTIN: Well, she definitely touched a nerve.

STEINER: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: Something tells me we'll be talking about this again.

KELLY: Oh yes.

MARTIN: Thank you all so much for joining us today for this round of the conversation - round one of this conversation. Or is it round 37?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is editor of the book "Mommy Wars," and most recently, "Crazy Love." Dani Tucker is an office administrator and fitness instructor. Mary Louise Kelly is a journalist and author. She's NPR's former Pentagon correspondent. They were all here with me in Washington, D.C. With us from WCPN in Cleveland, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author of "And His Lovely Wife." Thank you all so much for joining us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

STEINER: Thank you, Michel.

KELLY: Thank you everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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