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?

By , Contributor

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    Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,
    By Sheryl Sandberg,
    Knopf,
    240 pp.
    View Caption

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.

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.

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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.

The pay gap itself can be justification for a woman to quit, or settle for a mid-level position, even if her husband might prefer to take on the at-home duties. Men are more likely to be mentored and sponsored by both male and female leaders. US childcare and parental leave policies are ridiculously old-fashioned. Men are more likely to be evaluated on future potential, while women are evaluated on past accomplishments. Sandberg spotlights a study, which distributed identical resumes, the only difference being the name: one version was for “Heidi,” the other, “Howard.” While both were viewed as equally competent, Howard was liked, while Heidi was seen as “selfish” and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Success and likeability go hand-in-hand for men; if a woman is successful, both men and women like her less.

These systemic barriers lead to the internalization of powerlessness that Sandberg addresses. Women see the glass ceiling, hear about the impossibility of “having it all,” and then expect less from themselves, second-guessing their skills. They opt out of positions of influence while doing more than their share of work in the home. “We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who many not even exist yet,” Sandberg writes.

"Lean In" serves as a kind of philosophical and practical toolkit for women with ambitions of all kinds, and an education and inspiration for men who are aware that their workplaces and home lives are diminished when women are only a fraction of who they can be. Sandberg offers women dictums that sound simplistic – “sit at the table,” “don’t leave before you leave,” – but have radical consequences. Her prose, tautly shaped in partnership with Nell Scovell, is data-driven, but accessible, brocaded with personal anecdotes that provide insight while never implying that Sandberg’s exceptional career is the exact template for all of us to follow. She’s also generous in citing the ideas of feminists and female leaders – Gloria Steinem, Jessica Valenti, Leymah Gbowee – and she does so without pretension, embodying the collective voices necessary to create a more just world. "Lean In" is a terrific book.

It is not, however, all things to all women. Many working women have good reason to feel unsafe about asking for more. Sandberg, anticipating critics, acknowledges the class issues at play, noting that, “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families,” and that parts of her book are most relevant to women in a position to make choices, while other parts are relevant to all kinds of workplaces and homes.

Sandberg also sidesteps the question of the ways that the “have it all” myth impacts women who are not mothers and married. Women who are single and without kids also struggle to balance their personal and professional lives, though in different ways, and their challenges merit exploration. But single women are offered only an anecdotal nod in chapters like “Make Your Partner a Real Partner.” The absence inadvertently affirms the narrow assumptions in the “have it all myth” – that working women are married, about to be married, or else, their work/life balance challenges are of no significance.

Sandberg describes writing this book as her own act of leaning in – moving out of her professional comfort zone. I believe her. To her critics who feel that there is more to the story about women and work: They’re right. I hope they write other good books. In true "Lean In" spirit, one token leading voice is not enough. We need a critical mass in the conversation, collectively overhauling the idea of what’s possible in the lives of women.

The stakes are too high to stay quiet and abide the status quo. We risking limiting yet another generation if we stay silent.

– Anna Clark is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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