Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadSo I’m a little late to the game on this one. For an ardent feminist and self-described bookworm, I should have read this as soon as it came out. But I’ve read so many articles about it, for it, and against it, that by the time I finally got around to it, it felt like I already had read it.

I think that did disfavor to the book too. When it first came out, it probably seemed new and innovative, but when you attend meetings and your colleagues say “sit at the table” or you’ve heard numerous graduate school panels encourage you to speak up and take risks, it’s advice seems very overused. Same with the repetitious discussion about balancing children/family life with a career – a discussion that seems less pertinent to me as a fresh-out-of-college employee than perhaps older women, but something that the US in particular does much less well than other countries who are very supportive of maternal and paternal leave.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has thrust Sheryl Sandberg into the spotlight. As a C-suiter and as a mother, all her actions are now criticized under the lens of feminist advocate. She herself throughout the book mentions that this made her hesitant to write it, though I don’t understand her misguided view of feminism and her belief that it had accomplished gender equality. Her career trajectory, and the anecdotes she mention, certainly suggest that she has a wealth of experience and knowledge about ascending up the business ladder as a women, to her current position as COO of Facebook.

Sandberg talks extensively about her own past, though she also intersperses examples from other women she knows as well as hard data. I’m glad that she acknowledged that she had privileged opportunities, including her schooling at Harvard and sponsorship by Larry Summers. (Side note: How do you get into Harvard without knowing about The Illiad and The Odyssey? In addition to her initial view on feminism, this lapse made me think that she’s a product of a different era and out-of-touch with millennials who are being educated and joining the workforce in a very different climate than when she grew up.) She also is white and wealthy, which affords her additional privileges that I’d imagine would be out of reach for many American women.

I certainly agree that there are not enough women in leadership in business or government. Take the recent Supreme Court decision about birth control – no matter what side of the issue you’re on, it’s telling if all the women consistently vote one way on these issues and the majority of men take the opposite view. Men have to be taught that it’s okay not to be the bread-winner, that it’s valid to be a stay-at-home dad, that current restrictions on women’s rights by government and companies effect them negatively too.

This is where I have a problem. I think women have proven to be very effective in leadership positions, and if women want to lead, then they should be able to. But not all women want to lead like not all men do. And that’s an equally valid choice. If women are hanging back from leadership roles because they don’t have the self-confidence to go for them, that’s an issue we need to resolve by educating girls from a young age that they have the potential to do whatever they will; however, I know plenty of people who are content with their positions – they can be heard when they want but they’re also happy to sit back and get work done quietly and efficiently. In sum, it’s a bit of an all-encompassing human issue when not all people are aggressively determined to rise to the top but society expects that drive from them and looks down at those who choose differently.

As I mentioned, I had heard this all before as have many other women I know. Now I need the tools to build that confidence, to push and challenge myself, to determine my goals and accomplish them instead of sabotaging myself. Maybe this is why Sandberg is so big on mentorship, but most of this development needs to come from within and I haven’t yet read any persuasive and effective material on how to self-improve in that way – definitely not from her self-promoting, pseudo-empowering website. That’s just personally – we also need more quality solutions as a community to incite structural and cultural reform.

Perhaps that can be Sandberg’s next book. She may have made Facebook work around her as did Melissa Mayer at Yahoo, but overall offered no comprehensive solutions to better women’s labor conditions at large. I applaud her for launching this conversation, but don’t think she has made substantive contributions to change.

3 Stars


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