The XX Factor

Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Circles Completely Miss the Point on Workplace Maternity

Actually, Sheryl Sandberg, not all “lean in” stories have “positive endings”

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Jodi Kantor has a revealing front-page story in today’s New York Times about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s forthcoming book, Lean In, and her accompanying social/corporate mission. She is exhorting ambitious women in their 20s and 30s—women like me and my cohorts—to “lean in” to their careers, especially when they have kids, instead of saying no to new opportunities. To that end, Sandberg has created a curriculum for women to follow in self-generated “lean in” circles, in which they share their experiences about “leaning” in or “stepping back” from their careers.

Kantor compares them to feminist consciousness raising groups of the ‘70s, but there’s one huge difference: According to “lean in” circle instructions the Times has posted on their website, only stories with “positive endings about what you learned from your experience” are welcome. (“Don’t be afraid to weave in some closing advice or words of wisdom,” the guidelines chirp.) Never mind the fact that this is a movement geared entirely toward privileged women in the first place (as Kantor points out, what working class mom with a full time job has time to spend her evenings in a “lean in” circle?). The entire thing gives short shrift to the massive structural barriers that are a major piece of preventing even privileged women from reaching their full potential.

Though my story would not be allowed in Sandberg’s circle of positivity, let me share it, because it’s instructive in showing how the United States’ lack of support for pregnant women threw me right off my career track. When the opportunity came up last year for me to become deputy editor of another Web magazine, I took it, even though my husband and I were trying to conceive. I jumped at the job in no small part because I had seen Sandberg’s rousing TED talk in 2010, in which she exhorted women: “don’t leave before you leave,” which is to say, don’t step back from your career until after you’re actually pregnant.

I made “don’t leave before you leave” my mantra. I had all the societal privileges and benefits in place that Sandberg recommends in Lean In: I had a supportive husband who didn’t balk at doing his share of chores or future child care, I had a great work ethic and was highly efficient (I wrote a novel while I had a full-time job, utilizing early mornings and weekends).

So I “leaned in” to my career, and promptly fell on my face. I found out I was pregnant on my second day of work at the new job. Getting pregnant so soon after we started trying was certainly a major blessing, but it was not part of my plan. (Sandberg is big on women creating short-term and long-term plans). Still, I told myself that it was a minor hurdle that I could overcome. Pregnancy isn’t a disability, after all.

Except when it is. I started throwing up two weeks into the gig. This was not the cutesy “morning sickness” of television and movies, where women barf neatly into a wastepaper basket at their desk and then feel fine. I threw up all day, every day. I lost several pounds, and couldn’t keep anything down regularly except for clementines.

At least the kid won’t have scurvy, I joked, in my better moments, of which there were few. There were few because along with the hyperemesis (yep, the Kate Middleton disease), I got extremely depressed (which I wrote about in Slate). While my pregnancy experience was extreme, it’s not rare: 53 percent of women vomit in their first trimester, as many as 90 percent report nausea, and 10 to 15 percent of women become depressed at some point during their nine months.

Pregnant women who are as sick as I was and at new jobs fall into a curious nether region of workplace fairness law. Pregnancy itself is not considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act. Ideally, sick pregnant women should be protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but it doesn’t always work that way. The sickness that arises from your pregnancy has to be bad enough to be considered a disability by the Americans with Disability Act to guarantee time off from your employer. According to the National Advocates for Pregnant women, a New Hampshire court ruled that complications from ovarian cysts did not count as “physical impairments” under the ADA—so a woman in New Hampshire who had that complication would not be guaranteed a break from work.

Well what about the Family Medical Leave Act? Isn’t that supposed to guarantee up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a medically complicated pregnancy? If you’ve been at an organization for fewer than 12 months or if your organization has fewer than 50 employees, it doesn’t. As I had just started a new job, I wasn’t covered during my illness, and I would not be covered after I gave birth.

This is particularly noteworthy in the context of Sandberg’s book and mission because she explicitly encourages women to take jobs at startups that are growing, as she did at Google and Facebook. She mentions that she got Google to reserve parking spaces just for pregnant women, and encourages readers to ask for similar accommodations. But Sandberg was high up in the company and had major clout; it’s tough to ask for accommodations when you’re worried about having a job at all.

After two months of nonstop vomiting, I decided to roll the dice and quit. I figured freelance writing would be more lucrative than the disability leave (which would have paid me about 6 percent of my pretax salary), and I could do that in the few hours a day I felt well enough to focus.

As I said, I was only able to make this decision because I am incredibly lucky to have a husband with a good job and health insurance, no student loan debt, and be in a profession where freelancing is an acceptable choice. If I had been the main or only breadwinner in my household, my family would have been destitute as long as I was sick.

But even though there’s a happy ending for me the individual, I’m still thinking about the unhappy endings that most pregnant women who get sick have, and the fact that it wasn’t a lack of ambition or speaking up for myself that set me back. I can’t be the only capable woman who was stopped short by a complicated pregnancy. Sheryl Sandberg is right that young women need to be encouraged to raise their hands for those promotions, but that’s only part of the equation.

To really change the ratio at the top, we need to have laws—like the proposed Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which has a snowball’s chance of passing congress—that support working mothers, fathers and families. I can’t understand why she’s not putting her considerable wealth and clout behind lobbying for better maternity leave policies for all, rather than starting lean in circles that, if they benefit anyone, it’s people who don’t need the help in the first place.