Reviewed by Liza Mundy
San Francisco Chronicle, Copyright 2013
So I was sitting at my desk with a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” at my elbow, procrastinating for a tiny minute before writing this review. I was leaning back, I admit, by checking Facebook. Glancing at the right side of the page, where Facebook inserts those tiny ads for things like wrinkle elimination and the Dr. Oz diet, I saw Sheryl Sandberg! “Are you leaning in?” she wanted to know, or her ad likeness did. Ack! No, I am not! Sorry!
What that encounter drove home is that it’s hard to react to “Lean In” as a book, exactly. It’s more of a book-product project, a multiplatform print-and-social-media campaign whereby Sandberg can reinforce her brand in any number of venues.
As the New York Times has reported, the master plan behind “Lean In” is that readers will be invited to join real-life Lean In Circles, as well as an online community that will, as the marketing kit notes, be “tightly integrated with Facebook.” In these settings we can network, exhort, engage in long-distance learning by watching videos on how to speak and sit, and submit our own workplace stories, which should be positive and inspirational. In this way, unless I am missing something, the book becomes a conduit whereby the musings of Facebook’s chief operating officer are used to drive Facebook traffic.
And unless I am missing something else, there is wonderful irony in the fact that the woman who helped bring us the world’s most popular procrastination tool is now urging us to stop procrastinating, while providing one more way to do so. Who says women don’t dream big?
In all of this, “Lean In” is notably different from “The Feminine Mystique,” the work it aims to echo. For one thing, Betty Friedan did not confine her manifesto to happy narratives – it would have been a thin tome if she had. For another, Friedan’s book was the product of intense and mostly individual effort; years spent toiling in the New York Public Library resulted in a work that provoked quiet, explosive epiphanies within the psyches of millions of women.
In contrast, Sandberg’s is exactly the sort of team effort you would expect from a corporate leader, completed – like many leadership manuals – with the help of a “writing partner,” feedback from people with “communications expertise” and research assistants digesting reports from places like the Institute for Women’s Leadership, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Center for Work & Family, the Families and Work Institute, and the Women & Politics Institute. So many entities exist to study women’s troubles, one reflects, perusing her footnotes, that it’s hard to believe we still have any troubles to be studied.
But we do. For all of our strengths and achievements – which Sandberg herself is proof of – women remain underrepresented in leadership on Wall Street, Capitol Hill and C-suites. The question, now, is why. Recently, I met a Wall Street woman who had her own theory: “Women don’t want to put up with all that s–,” she said, implying that these environments are so unpleasant, only men are willing to devote their lives to success there.
Sandberg’s theory is not quite that, but it’s related: Women opt out. We ask too little of ourselves. We don’t sit at the table; we don’t take credit; we underestimate and over-criticize ourselves; we shrink back and stay in jobs that are comfortable. We are more sinning, in her view, than sinned against.
There is doubtless truth here, though it does tend to treat women as a monolithic behavioral unit. What’s most interesting is how this book is part of a conversation that has gained urgency and real fire in the past year, as high-profile female leaders engage in a public debate about why women aren’t yet where we ought to be, and prepare for what one might dare to hope is a final assault to take the high ground.
Some, like Sandberg, argue that we need to ask even more of ourselves; others, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, argue that society, schools and the workplace must transform to accommodate our needs. Both views are, of course, true simultaneously, and while the sides are often presented as antagonistic (an impression aided by the fact that Sandberg, according to the Times, was offended by something Slaughter wrote about her, and stopped answering her e-mails), they agree on much.
For instance: Women should stop thinking of a career as a “ladder,” and instead – given that we will sometimes move laterally and diagonally, scrambling in crazy directions and hanging on by our fingernails – think of it as a “jungle gym,” in Sandberg’s formulation, or, as others recommend, a “lattice.”
And we should take the long view. Sandberg also invokes the image of a career as a marathon and urges women to power through the “tough middle,” the child-bearing years. Even if you are hardly earning enough to cover child care, she says, look upon yourself as an investment and think of the payoff down the road. This is important, and valid, and so is her analysis of the forces, subtle and explicit, that drive women who can afford to opt out to do so. Sandberg is most engaging when confessing; about breast-pumping during phone calls; scanning the parking lot when sneaking out at 5:30 – though one notices that these anecdotes tend to have happy endings.
Not all workplace experiences do. The writer Jessica Grose noted on Slate that she tried leaning in by taking a demanding job while trying to conceive, inspired by Sandberg’s famous TED talk urging women not to dial back in anticipation of becoming mothers. Prostrated by extreme, Kate Middleton-level morning sickness, Grose ended up quitting to freelance, because, it turns out, no law exists to see her through that kind of disability.
The problem, sometimes, is not women not leaning in; it’s women leaning in, only to hit their heads against hard impediments. Sandberg, in keeping with her corporate identity, doesn’t talk a great deal about mandating more flexible workplace policies to help parents. Bracing and meritorious as the lean-in reminder is, the danger is that it places the onus for transformational change on individuals rather than institutions.
I also question her argument that today’s women in their 20s and 30s – better educated than their male peers – are insufficiently ambitious. The viral popularity of her TED talk suggests hordes of turbo-charged women looking for guidance in, yes, taking risks and raising their hands. In a way, the success of her book depends on her central premise turning out to be incorrect; it depends on her underestimating the drive of her audience even as she is playing to it.
Liza Mundy is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author, most recently, of “The Richer Sex.”