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JOAN VENNOCHI | ‘Lean in’ or lean back?

Generations unite over the balancing act

Gordon Studer for the Boston Globe

Once you factor out her two Harvard degrees, her mentoring by Larry Summers, and her climb from Google to Facebook, with stock options worth more than $1 billion — Sheryl Sandberg and I have a lot in common.

We both cried at work. In her new book, “Lean In,” Sandberg reveals that she teared up in front of legendary Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who offered to hug her. I sobbed in front of legendary Globe Spotlight editors Gerry O’Neill and Steve Kurkjian, and numerous others. They didn’t hug me, but they did endure me.

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We both have supportive spouses. Indeed, when the kids came home from school and occasionally discovered me in front of the stove, they didn’t ask, “What’s for dinner?” With trembling voices, they asked, “Where’s dad?”

And, as mothers of two young children — where she is now at age 43 and where I was only yesterday — finding some career-family balance was a major issue.

Of course, Sandberg already sits high atop the corporate mountain, where she’s heralded as one of the most powerful women in the universe. From that vantage point, she has written a book about “women, work, and the will to lead.” She’s worried that not enough women yearn to keep the career fires burning and wants to encourage more to “lean in” and achieve leadership stature.

By her definition, I leaned back. I didn’t go for the gold of newsroom management or even Washington correspondent, although I thought about both. Other working mothers can and do juggle those jobs. It just didn’t fit my family situation. Instead of trying to take the traditional path up the journalistic mountain, I did what a lot of women do. I tried to carve out a career niche that made sense at home and at work. Looking back, I am happy with the outcome.

But over the years, like many women, I still felt guilty about the balance sheet. How many times did I tell a child, “I can’t talk, I’m on deadline”? On the family side of the balance sheet, how many times did I walk out of the newsroom with a reporter’s notebook in hand, trying to look like I was heading to a press conference instead of a soccer game?

Even with all her power, Sandberg feels the guilt, too. She’s not just Facebook’s COO; she’s the mom who doesn’t know it’s “green T-shirt” day and has to convince herself that’s OK.

I agree with much of what Sandberg has to say about women in the workplace. We should be more confident and less concerned about being liked. We should figure out early that pay raises aren’t automatic rewards for good work. We should raise our hands at meetings and keep them raised until the boss, male or female, notices them. We should focus less on face time and care more about weighing in when it counts.

We shouldn’t cry, but if we do, we shouldn’t kick ourselves. We should tell ourselves it’s better than watching a man show his emotion by kicking a waste basket. (That’s my advice, not Sandberg’s.)

None of that is revolutionary feminist thinking. Yet from my humble vantage point, the women of my generation still need those instructions more than the women of Sandberg’s. Her peers rightly enter the workforce with more swagger than mine did. They are less afraid to cite child care as reason to leave early. To their credit, they are better at negotiating favorable work arrangements and fret less about looking good while they do it.

But if Sandberg, with her amazing resume and success, can still understand the sting of being marginalized, that validates anew the entrenched power of institutional sexism. Talking about it from the top of the mountain, as she’s doing, is a positive outcome for women.

It will be interesting to watch Sandberg decide what mountain to climb next. According to media reports, her Facebook stock options vest in 2022, subject to continued employment. That’s nine years from now, a time period that covers her children’s middle and high school years.

By then, she may rethink her definition of leaning in. If she does, she’ll discover a different kind of power — the power of compromise.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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