Why Men Need to Read 'Lean In,' Too

Equality is a project for everybody.

Lean in, man. (Andrey Popov/Shutterstock)

At one point in her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells the story of Cynthia Hogan, former chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hogan left her job in 1996 when her first child was born, and stayed out once a second child arrived prematurely. Twelve *years* later, Vice President-Elect (and her former boss) Joe Biden gave Hogan a call. Would she consider joining his staff as chief legal counsel in the White House?

"I knew that whether this would work depended on two men," she told Sandberg in an email. She asked her husband if he'd bear more of the responsibilities at home ("Of course, it's your turn," he told her) and the Vice President-elect if she'd be able to have dinner at home most nights ("Well, you have a phone and I can call you when I need you after dinnertime," he said in a very lovable Joe Biden sort of way, I am sure). She took the job.

Pretty much everybody knows that Sandberg has written a book that encourages women to "lean in" -- to not dial down their ambitions in the face of the pressures of running a household, and to push their hardest to rise up the ranks and bring America's leadership closer to gender parity. Already a bestseller, women are eagerly looking to the book for inspiration and advice; a quick glance at the social reading site Goodreads returns a list of *thousands* of women who have marked the book as "to-read" or "currently reading" in the past two weeks or so. "I have a long line of female friends who are waiting to borrow this book," writes one.

And that's great. But women are not the only ones who need to read this book. Though it's been marketed to and written for a primarily female audience, Lean In contains a whole lot for men to think seriously about. As Sandberg's story about Cynthia Hogan illustrates, equality is a project everybody must work on together.

For too long, achieving equality has been seen as women's burden. People (myself included) were disappointed by Marissa Mayer's shirking of the feminist label, but few ever ask America's male CEOs whether they consider themselves feminists. A recent "pop-up book club" from The Guardian asked "women of the internet, [to] gather around" to re-read Betty Friedan's classic The Feminine Mystique. Again and again, we leave men out of the conversation about gender equality -- a conversation whose success depends on their participation.

This is a lost opportunity. Perhaps in the past there were fewer men who were willing partners in this project, but it's time to recognize that many men don't like inequality any better than women do. Maybe men don't feel like there is anything they can do. Sandberg quotes Alice Walker who said, "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." Though Sandberg means it to apply to women, it's just as true for men. Men need to recognize the power they have, and use it. Both in the workplace as colleagues and bosses and at home as husbands (for heterosexual couples), men can do more to complement all the leaning in that the women around them are doing.

It is likely that Sandberg's words will carry the most force in the workplace. Her book is laced with examples of men who have made a conscious effort to make their workplaces more equal, such as the case of a Goldman Sachs executive who instituted a universal "breakfast or lunch only policy" so that he could meet equally with male and female junior staff with no hint of impropriety stemming from a late-night dinner with a young woman. There's also a Johns Hopkins medical school professor who, after watching Sandberg's viral TED talk, got rid of hand-raising (women are less likely to keep their hands up) and just called on people randomly. Additionally, through sharing her experience in hiring young women at Facebook, she models how workplaces can proactively raise the question of pregnancy so that female employees will feel supported and ease the fear for their job security that many feel when starting a family.

But Lean In's value to men in professional settings goes beyond advice: Since the book is primarily directed at women, and since it expends a huge amount of energy exploring the complexities of gender dynamics in the workplace, the book provides a great window for men who just want to better understand why women haven't achieved more equality over the last half century -- what forces, psychological and institutional, have preserved the predominance of men in the top tiers of leadership in virtually every field. By knowing this story -- one, I think, that women discuss among themselves quite often -- men will become more sophisticated thinkers and actors when it comes to gender.

And it's not just in professional settings that men can do more. Household responsibilities remain primarily women's. Sandberg writes:

In the last thirty years, women have made more progress in the workforce than in the home. According to the most recent analysis, when a husband and wife both are employed full-time, the mother does 40 percent more child care and about 30 percent more housework than the father. A 2009 survey found that only 9 percent of people in dual-earner marriages said that they shared housework, child care, and breadwinning evenly.

Improvement will come from men who, perhaps by reading this book, decide that they need to do more at home. Harvard Business School student Kunal Modi wrote an essay to this effect last summer, advocating for men to "man up" when it comes to housework. Or, as Sandberg puts it in what is possibly my favorite lines of the whole book, "We all need to encourage men to lean in to their families." (My partner can look forward to this encouragement!)

But it's not just about men deciding to take on more household responsibilities. Workplaces need to become more conducive -- culturally and institutionally -- to men who are equal partners at home.

"When male employees take a leave of absence or just leave work early to care for a sick child, they can face negative consequences that range from being teased to receiving lower performance ratings to reducing their chance for a raise or promotion," she writes. She tells the story of her brother David hearing a colleague bragging about playing soccer just hours after his first child was born. "To David's credit, instead of nodding and smiling, he spoke up and explained that he didn't think that was either cool or impressive. This opinion needs to be voiced loudly and repeatedly on soccer fields, in workplaces, and in homes." Again, the value of bringing men into the conversation on equality is plain: This cannot be just a women's project.

There are obvious upsides for men, too. For one, many men would love to be more involved with their families, but work demands otherwise. Sandberg argues,

If we make it too easy for women to drop out of the career marathon, we also make it too hard for men. Just as women feel that they bear the primary responsibility of caring for their children, many men feel that they bear the primary responsibility of supporting their families financially. Their self-worth is tied mainly to their professional success, and they frequently believe they have no choice but to finish that marathon.

For another, their children will be better off. Sandberg goes into detail on the advantages to children of having more involved fathers -- better psychological well-being, better cognitive abilities, higher educational attainment, higher salaries, lower delinquency rates, greater empathy, etc. etc. etc. "These findings hold true for children from all socioeconomic backgrounds, whether or not the mother is highly involved," she reports.

And as for marriages, the evidence is pretty persuasive:

When husbands do more housework, wives are less depressed, marital conflicts decrease, and satisfaction rises. When women work outside the home and share breadwinning duties, couples are more likely to stay together. In fact, the risk of divorce reduces by about half when a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework. For men, participating in child rearing fosters the development of patience, empathy, and adaptability, characteristics that benefit all of their relationships. For women, earning money increased their decision-making ability in the home, protects them in case of divorce, and can be important security in later years, as women often outlive their husbands. Also -- and many might find this the most motivating factor -- couples who share domestic responsibilities have more sex.

Despite these advantages, and despite the real desire of many men to make society fairer, Sandberg notes that it can still sometimes be quite hard for men to speak out at the workplace, whether because they fear professional repercussions or because they just do not know how to do so. At Facebook, she says, "I give men the option of quoting me if the words don't feel right coming out of their mouths." It's easy to see how men anywhere could do the same. After all, there is now a full book of her words, waiting to be quoted in service of a more equal world. Men just need to read it.