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Basu: Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' doesn't deal enough with cultural change

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook delivers a keynote during

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook delivers a keynote during the Digital Life Design conference at HVB Forum in Munich, Germany. (Jan. 24, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Every few years, prompted by a new book, TV show or factoid, there is a flurry of media attention to women's lack of advancement in the workplace. It usually comes to rest on what we women are not doing enough of to move ourselves further up the career ladder.

The catalyst might be a story about some rising corporate star opting to chuck the fast track to stay home with her kids. It might be some executive who embodies the crisis for successful females hearing the ticking of biological clocks. Both cases typically inspire handwringing about whether getting ahead is really worth missing family dinners or the baby's first steps.

The latest catalyst for soul-searching is a new book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," in which she argues that women need to aim higher, take more risks and seek more challenges to get ahead. It's suddenly everywhere: on the covers of Time and USA Today, in The New York Times Book Review, on "60 Minutes," and chewed over by panels of women on "Meet The Press" and the "Today" show.

At one level, any examination of the issue is a good thing because the facts underscore the inequality. Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population and 47 percent of the workforce, yet are only 4 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies and 17 percent of board members. Women still earn about 77 cents for every dollar a man makes -- even though women have for 30 years earned more college degrees than men have.

But Sandberg's focus on how women undermine themselves by not pushing hard enough addresses only one part of a problem that is framed in isolation from men's role. It treats only as an afterthought the husbands who don't share child rearing, the bosses and informal networks that don't tap women for advancement, and the workplace policies that are not family friendly. It accepts the prevailing male model of corporate cultures.

Sandberg claims women are too plagued by self-doubt, that we wrongly credit hard work, luck and other people for our successes while men attribute their success to their core skills. While pushiness is seen as a natural quality in men, she worries that it is not considered attractive in women.

This leads to a central concern with Sandberg's premise, which implicitly accepts a workplace hierarchy based on cutthroat competition, where there is only so much room at the top and one has to climb over others to get there. It's a world that values personal advancement over teamwork and collaboration. She suggests it's a model we all need to adapt to rather than one that needs to change.

Even if you accept the premise that women are less apt to push themselves over others, could that model perhaps be commendable, even worthy of emulation? Must it mean women don't believe in themselves, or might it mean they are more concerned with the common good than purely personal advancement? I wouldn't be one of Sandberg's success stories. Journalism for me has always been less a career goal than a means to address pressing social issues. And while I have zero interest in climbing the corporate ladder, it's not because of any internalized lack of ambition or confidence.

Dr. Sue Varma, a New York University psychiatry professor, argues that women are biologically driven to form harmonious communities, while testosterone drives men to be competitive. However you feel about biological determinism, whether it's biology or culture and upbringing, maybe concern for the collective welfare is a better overall model.

Yes, there are sobering facts for women in the workplace. They indicate that men need to step up and take more responsibility at home, and women need to demand they do as we push ourselves harder at work. Yes, women need to give up on the quest to be universally loved. You can't be, if you're challenging systems.

Sandberg is right that more female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women. But it's not necessarily women who need to change in order to get there. What needs to change is corporate cultures, self-perpetuating models of power and ultimately, notions of success.

Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist.