Lean In: A Book Review

sheryl_centeredSo I just read Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg.  I’d heard so much about this book—both good and bad—that my curiosity was seriously piqued.  I’d shared articles from women who said “leaning in” wouldn’t work for them, at least not in the same way it worked for Ms. Sandberg.  I’d watched friends and strangers alike create “Lean In Circles,” in which they share stories and support one another in their careers.  I’d heard this book has the real power to create change—or at least to get people talking.  So I wanted to know: was this book really going to light a fire for change, and help push us all toward greater equality in the workplace?

After reading the book, I do think it has the power to raise awareness and to encourage women to grow.  It touts many ideas I wholeheartedly agree with, including a vision of women and men working together as true partners, both in the workplace and at home.  However, I also think the book is more encouragement than substance, with few concrete details about how to implement its advice.  And one of the most concrete details the author provides—the way in which she believes women must negotiate—has the potential to do more harm than good.

Right off the bat, Ms. Sandberg makes it clear that she is focusing on one side of a two-sided equation, the “chicken” in a “chicken-and-egg” dilemma:  women must overcome our internal barriers to success to reach parity in the workplace.  (The “egg” consists of external, institutionalized barriers—which Ms. Sandberg recognizes.  She fully supports anyone who is working toward equality by removing those barriers.)  Because her focus is on the internal, Ms. Sandberg encourages women to act with the courage and confidence of our convictions:  take a seat at the table, raise a hand to answer a question, reach for the “stretch” job.  Ms. Sandberg believes that “The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person.  We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in” (p. 11).  Her encouraging words are well worth listening to:  women do indeed need to “just go for it.”

Here’s some of the advice and encouragement that constitute the best of this book:

Words of Wisdom

  • On Feminism:  YAY!!  A famous businesswoman has said it loud and said it proud:  she’s a feminist.  And she debunks the “man-hating” myth about feminists:  Ms. Sandberg’s esteem and admiration for men, from her husband and brother to her coworkers and mentors, is obvious.  Ms. Sandberg quotes Gloria Steinem more than once, and even talks about her own journey to overcoming the idea that “feminist” is a dirty word.  Kudos to her for putting feminism back into mainstream conversation:  I LOVE that about this book.
  • On Fear:  “Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face.  Fear of not being liked.  Fear of making the wrong choice.  Fear of drawing negative attention.  Fear of overreaching.  Fear of being judged.  Fear of failure.  And the holy trinity of fear:  the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter”  (p. 24).  Then, this:  “…please ask yourself:  What would I do if I weren’t afraid?  And then go do it.”
  • On Career Paths:  Ms. Sandberg draws on a metaphor from Pattie Sellers, who describes careers as a jungle gym rather than a ladder. I love this metaphor, as I am winging my way around the jungle gym of my own life/career as we speak.  And I love it that she encourages women to take risks:  “The cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth” (p. 61).
  • On Marriage:  Ms. Sandberg encourages women—especially working mothers—to allow their husbands to be true partners at home.  No questioning his methods, no going back over his work:  “Anyone who wants her mate to be a true partner must treat him as an equal—and equally capable—partner” (p. 109).
  • On Overwork:  Ms. Sandberg points out the myth of “doing it all,” and encourages women to care for themselves.  Get enough sleep, leave the office at a reasonable time if you can, take a vacation with the family.  She quotes a Facebook mantra, “Done is better than perfect,” and encourages women to let the little stuff slide in favor of the big picture.
  • On Support:  Sandberg encourages women to build each other up, rather than tear each other down, and to support one another in their career paths.  She points to the media’s love of a good catfight, and gives instances of support she’s received from other women.  I love her call for solidarity as we work toward equality, and I think the Lean In circles can be a boon to women who are sharing their stories and struggles.

Yes, there is good advice here—claim feminism, don’t live in fear, go for what you want, take care of yourself and put limits on your time and energy, support one another.

However.

There are some aspects of the book—and the culture of “leaning in” that surrounds it—that trouble me.  Here are the caveats that prevent me from running into the streets and heralding this book as the beginning of true change.

The Caveats

  • Playing to Bias:  Ms. Sandberg quotes research that demonstrates the gender bias we all (women as well as men) hold, and suggests that women negotiate for more power and money with this bias in mind:  “…a woman needs to combine niceness with insistence…” (p. 48).  According to Ms. Sandberg, women need to “justify their requests,” something men don’t need to do.   Woah.  Hold the phone, back up the truck, and hang on a minute, sister.  I get that this bias exists—the research Ms. Sandberg provides is solid—but I don’t think we need to play to it.  (Much of the advice Ms. Sandberg gives—like speaking your authentic truth—even seems to contradict it.)  If we are all reading this book and joining Lean In circles and practicing our “play to bias” game faces (some of us on national television), it seems to me the gig is up.  Time to negotiate with an awareness of bias without twisting ourselves around it.  For excellent advice on how to do this, read Gloria Feldt’s No Excuses.
  • The Role of Policy:  Ms. Sandberg is too dismissive of the need for systemic change, and how that happens.  She recognizes that policy changes would make a difference:  “Governmental and company policies such as paid personal time off, affordable high-quality child care, and flexible work practices would serve families, and society, well” (p. 102), but leaves it to others to work that out—or to the women who lean in and get into leadership positions.  These policies are so vital that some women and families simply can’t “lean in” without them; they don’t have the support or resources they need.
  • Big Business:  “Lean In” has quickly become a brand, and revolutions don’t happen because they’ve been marketed into place.  My biggest reservation here has to do with Facebook’s culture of misogyny, which Ms. Sandberg has not addressed, despite the voices of many asking her to do so.  I understand that Ms. Sandberg is focusing on women’s internal barriers to success, but those internal barriers don’t happen in a vacuum—and Facebook, as an entity, encourages rape culture and discourages breastfeeding.  These practices speak volumes, and contribute to a culture that devalues women, which is what creates those “internal barriers” in the first place.  If Ms. Sandberg’s argument is that women in leadership positions can change workplace culture for the better, she would do well to start here, as Facebook has become both a personal and professional tool for many women.

Although my caveats represent some major reservations, I think Lean In has some valuable ideas—just keep in mind that the revolution isn’t entirely internal.  And, for the tools you need to negotiate while keeping your integrity and personal power intact, be sure to read No Excuses after you finish Lean In.

3 thoughts on “Lean In: A Book Review

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