Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: Lean In

After dragging my feet for ages, I finally gave in and read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to find out what the fuss was all about. Truth be told, I was kind of nudged into reading it by my brother, who sent it to me as a present for Rakshabandhan this year. If I had had any doubts about my family's opinion of my decision to exit the rat race (I did not), this would have laid rest to them!

As is always the case when I come late to the party over a much-talked about book or movie, I was quite underwhelmed. I didn't hate the book and I definitely found it thought-provoking in parts, but I certainly did not think it deserving of the paeans being sung over the world about it and its author.

The statistics and anecdotes quoted in the book confirm what women in the workforce have known for a long while - that there are nowhere near enough of us, that we tend to be more hesitant about putting ourselves forward and blowing our own trumpets than our male counterparts, that successful women are often branded as bossy and unlikeable, that we have to shoulder a majority of housekeeping and childrearing responsibilities in addition to holding down full-time jobs. We KNOW this stuff already so she is not telling us anything new, but it is useful and eye-opening to see it all together in the same place. Also, it is kind of hard to hate a book if you are nodding along with everything the author is saying.

Some have complained that this book and its advice applies only to a microscopic group of privileged and highly qualified women and does not adequately represent the average Jane. Factually, that might be correct and Sandberg herself admits it in the course of the book. But I don't necessarily get why that is a bad thing. Every book is written with a certain audience in mind and very few target (and even less achieve) universal appeal. This is a book for women, largely in the corporate world, that attempts to shed some light on what might be holding women back in the workplace and how to fix or work around these obstacles. Expecting it to fulfill some broader feminist cause is akin to expecting a rabbit to roar.

Another criticism commonly leveled at the book is that it doesn't really deal with the institutional setbacks, obstacles and lack of support that women face when they seek to 'lean in'.  Again, changes like affordable daycare, office creches, longer maternity (and paternity) leave and even spousal equality are not going to happen overnight. Does that mean that women as a group should put their careers on hold or just blame institutions for our inability to succeed? Clearly, a lot needs to happen on that front and as one the female industry leaders, one would hope that Sandberg is doing her bit to play influencer. But that falls into the gambit of lobbying and reform and is beyond the scope of this book. Here, she focusses on what women can and should do for themselves, instead of waiting around for people and organisations to change. Valid enough, I say. 

While I wasn't quite as blown away with the book as I had expected to be, I am glad I read it. I wish it had been around a few years earlier because it does a pretty good job of listing some of the career mistakes that I made and maybe I would have avoided them if I could have read it earlier.

'Don't leave before you leave', Sandberg says. This was the chapter that especially resonated with me. The following paragraph might well have been written to describe my experiences around the time that Tarana was born, which eventually led to my quitting the organisation I had worked at for almost 11 years:

"When she returns to the workplace after her child is born, she is likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized, or unappreciated.... At this point, she probably scales her ambitions back even further since she no longer believes that she can get to the top. And if she has the financial resources to leave her job, she is more likely to do so.... Choosing to leave a child in someone's care is a difficult decision. Any parent who has done this, myself included, knows how heart-wrenching this can be. Only a compelling, challenging, and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest"

BINGO! I remember that when I did decide to quit, my oft-used phrase about my options back at work was: 'It's not worth my time away from my kids'. After two pregnancies and two maternity breaks, I was not happy with what was available to me. I believed (and still do) that I deserved more but I also have to accept responsibilty for the fact that I should have pushed much harder, instead of expecting the world to give me what I felt was due to me. Which brings me to my next point.

"Women are often reluctant to apply for promotions even when deserved, often believing that good job performance will naturally lead to rewards.... Hard work and results should be recognized by the others, but when they aren't, advocating for oneself becomes necessary."

Again, she could be talking about me here. I worked hard, did a good job and expected that to be enough. When I had good bosses who were tuned in and invested in their subordinates, it was. But that was not the case when I left for my second maternity break and I lost out because I hadn't pushed myself forward as much as I could have and there was nobody to do it for me. I clearly remember an appraisal discussion many years ago. My boss at the time went through my self-appraisal and actually expressed shock at some of things I had achieved that year. Because he had never noticed during the year and I had not gone out of my way to bring them to his attention...

I am also glad she made the point that children of working moms are not worse off. One of my pet peeves is stay-at-home moms who walk around with a self-righteous halo because they believe what they are doing is the best (and only) way to raise healthy, happy kids. I have always believed that this is not true but it counts for more when someone of Sandberg's stature says it, backed by data. I am self-aware enough to know that I am currently at home more because it is something that I need to do rather than something that my kids need me to do. Sandberg's friend quotes her therapist as saying: "Separation anxiety is actually more about the mom than the kids." Amen.

Overall, the book is well-written and cleverly packaged. It's a quick and easy read, liberally peppered by witty and often charmingly self-deprecating anecdotes. It also doesn't talk fluff - most of the points Sandberg makes in the book are backed by hard data from reputable studies and institutions.

I also think men should pick up this read it, especially if they want to do more than lip service to recruiting and retaining more women in their organisations. Sandberg used the terms 'benevolent sexists' and 'nice guy misogynists' and I think that is bang on. I think most men, despite their best intentions, continue to perpetuate the attitudes and stereotypes that hold women back. Just becoming conscious of this fact would be the first step in the right direction.

That being said, I have to say that the book left me wanting. To start with, a reasonable large chunk of material in the book has already been covered in Sandberg's TED talk. Having seen the talk on YouTube months ago, I felt somewhat cheated at finding much of it repeated in the book.

My disappointment also was a function of my heightened expectations, given the number of people I had heard praising and recommending it. I think it is important to be clear about what this book is, and what it is not. It is not the new feminist manifesto. It is not a book likely to appeal to people in non-corporate, non-mainstream jobs. It is not a self-help book - it includes some helpful advice and tips that can help women overcome issues and obstacles but it is definitely not a 'How to hit the C-suite in 10 years or less' guide. And, like I said above, it does not offer answers or solutions to the systemic and institutional problems women face or aim to change established attitudes and stereotypes that often plague women in the workplace.

All that being said, I have to say that I am glad that I read this book. While we can nod our heads along and say that we knew much of this before, the fact is that it is not really out there. I think it is great that someone put it out there and made it part of our conversations. Calling it 'inspiring' would be going a step too far, but it definitely got me thinking and that can only be a good thing.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Resident Chefling and his Cookbook Collection

It's over two years since I wrote this post about my early forays into the kitchen. In my journey from culinary disaster to tolerable cook, Ayaan has been my constant, pint-sized companion.

I think it started with the kitchen being the centre of our existence in the days when it used to take me hours to cook meals and clean up after them. The kids and I literally spent most of our waking, non-school hours there. On any given day, you could have walked in to find the floor liberally cluttered with toys and my Bose Sound Dock (which had been relocated to the kitchen) pumping out nursery rhymes.

Since we were in the kitchen a lot, it was only natural that he wanted to help. He asked to stir whatever was in the cooking pot, helped me mix batter for cookies or cakes and even wanted to wash the dishes! But it has grown from there and mushroomed into a passion for everything culinary. He is often found poring over my recipe books and trying to convince me that something or the other must be attempted right away.

He now has a small collection of cookbooks of his own as well. The other day, I posted something on Facebook about his chefly pursuits and had a few people asking me which cookbooks he uses. I thought I might as well make a post out of it.

The cookbook that is his favourite by far is The Everything Kids Cookbook. Like any self-respecting cookbook, Ayaan's copy of this one shows its wear and tear with its well-thumbed pages and random food stains. It is a neat little book, with relatively simple recipes (with difficulty levels clearly specified) and straightforward directions. Everything that we have cooked together from this book has come out well. There are some recipes with ingredients not easily available in India but most of the stuff is procurable or substitutable. It is designed with kids in mind, with a bunch of fun facts and puzzles thrown in. What one really misses in this book is photographs of the food to be cooked, but I find that to be a common thread across most kids' cookbooks. I guess they think cartoons are more likely to hit the mark with the younger set, but good food pictures are an integral part of a recipe book, irrespective of its target audience. Overall though, it is a great starter cookbook for the under-10 set.

This book - Better Homes and Gardens New Junior Cook Book - was presented to him along with the one above by his aunt (my brother's wife) for his seventh birthday. But somehow, this has not been his go-to cookbook when he wants to convince me to help him whip up something. Unlike the black-and-white aesthetic of the previous book, this one is bursting with colour. But I personally find it graphic style very cluttered and loud. However, it ticks all the boxes in terms of providing all the essential information for a young, novice cook and easy-to-follow directions. The dish names - Deep Sea Subs and Eye Popping Popcorn, for example - are corny but cute. I can't remember when we last tried cooking something from this one, so I cannot vouch for the quality of the recipes.

If you were to ask Ayaan to name his favourite authors, he will rattle off the names of Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit and Enid Blyton - in that very order. The other day, he was telling me that he wished Dahl was still alive because then he could have written some more books. So when I came across a book titled Roald Dahl's Completely Revolting Recipes, I knew I had to get it for him. Technically, Dahl did not write this book - the recipes were compiled by his wife after this death - but the recipes link back to the food mentioned in his books and the trademark Quentin Blake illustrations make it Dahlian like nothing else possibly could. Many of the recipes could sound appetising only to a hard-core Dahl fan - Hot Frogs, A Plate of Soil with Engine Oil and Hornets Stewed in Tar, to name our few. On the downside, our success with the recipes in this book has been mixed. Overall, this is less of a must-have cookbook for kids and more of a must-have addition to Ayaan's comprehensive Roald Dahl library. 

Of course, he considers my cookbook collection to be an extension of his. It is not uncommon for me to search high and low for a particular cookbook, only to find it nestled comfortably in his bookshelf. He has also called eternal dibs on the Good Food magazine we get every month - he has to be the first one to read it and he often marks out recipes for me to try...