Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" is Not Enough to Increase Workplace Equality


Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In blitz continues to pick up steam. On Thursday, it made the top spot on USA Today’s bestselling book list, and the message Facebook’s COO is trying to send is that women need to be bolder, stronger, and more ambitious at home and in the workplace. A good handful of female pioneers and celebrities, including Maria Renz and Reese Witherspoon, have endorsed Sandberg’s vision. But are corporations — the ultimate testing ground for Sandberg’s message — responding with the same enthusiasm?

It turns out, many aren't. In January, Julie Desantis-Mayer, a UPS employee of 10 years, wrote a poignant piece on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Blog of Rights about her experience trying to get reassigned to less strenuous duties during her last few months of pregnancy. UPS told Desantis-Mayer, a full-time driver who lifts packages up to 70 pounds in weight, that there were no such jobs available. Meanwhile, they had apparently created a position for another employee whose license was suspended for a DUI. Desantis-Mayer herself had previously been reassigned to light duty when she was injured on the job in 2012.

It’s curious that UPS was quick to accommodate her needs when it involved an accident on the job, but not when it came to her needs as a dedicated pregnant employee. 

A company that is listed as a corporate partner on Lean In’s website hasn't even followed through with Sandberg’s message. In 2011, the courts ruled against two “high level employees” at Bloomberg L.P., whom the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged were demoted and took a pay cut due to their pregnancies. The ACLU picks up some of the most damning evidence that attests to Bloomberg’s corporate attitude towards women: (the Court’s full Opinion & Order can be found here):

-The CEO who replaced Mike Bloomberg, who soon after he started referred to two women on maternity leave as "pregnant bitches" and demanded that managers "get rid" of them;

-The head of the News division who said "half these f*ckin' people [i.e. pregnant employees] take the leave and they don't even come back. It's like stealing money from Mike Bloomberg's wallet. It's theft. They should be arrested."

-The Global Head of Human Resources and of Operations who stated that "women [do] not really [have] a place in the workforce," but instead "belong at home raising the children."

In the end, the court concluded, “it is not the role of the courts to dictate a healthy balance for all. Nor is it the role of the courts to tell businesses what attributes they must value in their employees as they make pay and promotion decisions.”

They also noted that, “women who take maternity leave, work fewer hours, and demand more scheduling flexibility likely are at a disadvantage in a demanding culture like Bloomberg’s.”

Not only do corporations and courts perpetuate an impeding culture for gender equality, it appears that every-day institutions also do. Last year, Inside Out fired Jennifer Maudlin, a single mother, after she told the religious-based community youth organization that she was pregnant. The ACLU and EEOC filed against Inside Out last month, charging that they used religion to discriminate against Maudlin who became pregnant as a single woman.

For gender equality to get closer to just that — an equal playing field for both women and men, especially in the workplace — change must begin, as Sandberg says, within ourselves. Women should ask for more raises. They should understand their worth. But the onus is clearly not just on women. It is also the responsibility of corporations, the courts, religious organizations, and all walks of society to lean in.