Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Sheryl Sandberg's new book is a lightning rod for controversy. Will it be a catalyst for change?
When a high-powered executive publishes a book on leadership, there are good reasons to be skeptical. Thin on substance, high on self-flattery, this genre too often is simply PR dressed up as nonfiction.Skip to next paragraph
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But Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg is an unexpected alternative to a sorry template. Sandberg – chief operating officer of Facebook, formerly a Google vice president and chief of staff at the Treasury Department – has written a brave book that is unabashedly personal and political.
It is provoking, too. "Lean In" ignited a spirited debate more than a month before it was even published. Talk about your cultural trigger! A high-profile woman discussing women and work, plainly stating that sexism is still part of our everyday lives? This is lightning-rod material.
Sandberg knows it, too. In the book, she tells stories about her experience bringing up gender in the workplace and unleashing unease, dismissive “humor,” defensiveness, and backlash. And with "Lean In" making headlines, Sandberg has become a target. Some critics shame her for making gender her “thing,” overplaying its significance; those on the other end of the spectrum complain that she buys too heavily into “trickle down feminism,” neglecting the challenges of women who don’t share her privileges, including the backing of one of the most powerful companies on earth.
There’s the context. Let’s get to the text.
"Lean In" illuminates the stagnancy of gender equity in the workplace, particularly in positions of power. While top-tier business schools and entry-level jobs may have an even gender breakdown, numbers skew as time progresses. Women became 50 percent of college graduates in the US in the early 1980s, Sandberg notes. But a generation later, only 21 women lead the Fortune 500 companies. Women hold 14 percent of executive officer positions, 16 percent of board seats, and are 18 percent of our elected Congress. For women of color, these numbers sink by two-thirds. So, Sandberg writes, women are outpacing men in education, but are not progressing as leaders in any industry. “This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, the voices of women are not heard equally.”
And we haven’t even gotten to the pay gap yet.
"In 1970, American women were paid 59 cents for every dollar their male counterparts made. By 2010, women had protested, fought, and worked their butts off to raise that compensation to 77 cents for every dollar men made. As activist Marlo Thomas wryly joked on Equal Pay Day 2011, 'Forty years and eighteen cents. A dozen eggs have gone up ten times that amount.' ”
So what’s the problem?
The “lean in” mantra is easily co-opted or misunderstood as suggesting that the lack of women with power in the richest country on earth is the fault of women themselves: They just don’t want it enough. "Lean In" skewers this limp rationalization by examining how women are selected out of the pool of talented leaders.