The woman of Sheryl Sandberg’s world is a timid creature. She’s smart but not savvy, ambitious but afraid to appear so, confident and driven but plagued by self-doubt. She’s wary of participating in meetings, wary of asking for promotions, wary of taking on new assignments. And don’t even get me started on motherhood—this woman has been ruminating on the work/life balance basically since she learned where babies come from.
For this woman, Sandberg has a wealth of advice, which in its entirety boils down to the central conceit of her book: Lean In. This woman—this hyper-sensitive, underutilized and challenge-averse woman—needs to stop sitting in the back row at meetings, stop taking flak from colleagues, and stop turning down opportunities because she’s unsure about her abilities. She needs to build organic and mutually beneficial relationships with coworkers, and worry less about being liked and more about being respected. She needs to speak her mind with colleagues and bosses, and if and when she decides to throw a bun in the oven, not start sacrificing her career the second she realizes she’s pregnant. She could also stand to snag an understanding, supportive and equally driven husband, who won’t hesitate to pitch in on 50% of the child-rearing and housework. In short, Sheryl Sandberg wants this woman to sack up (which, incidentally, would have been a way better book title.)
Lean In is presented as a series of challenges women face in the workplace—everything from birthing a baby to bucking the lingering stigma associated with being an “ambitious female.” Using anecdotes from her own career, Sandberg outlines and empathizes with these struggles, pulling in outside research to quash the Wimpy Woman’s fear that she is the only one fighting these battles. And indeed, the data speaks for itself: A 2012 McKinsey survey found that 36% of the men wanted to reach the C-suite (CEO, COO, etc.) compared with 18% of women. Another study found that women only apply to jobs if they meet 100% of the criteria, versus 60% for men. At the top fifty colleges, fewer than a third of student government presidents are female. And so on and so forth. Statistically speaking, the gender gap is hard to ignore.
And yet. There were times in reading Lean In when I felt that Sandberg wasn’t describing females so much as introverts, people—of either gender—with the kind of disposition that limits them in the workforce. Leaving aside those chapters of Lean In devoted to maternity leave and motherhood, the vast majority of Sandberg’s advice amounts to a straightforward rubric on Handling Oneself At Work. Speak up, be present, volunteer; make the most of your experiences and don’t get caught up in agonizing over your own potential.
As a woman, I can’t deny that I had some knee-jerk reactions to Sandberg’s generalizations about how my gender behaves in the workplace. Maybe I’ve just been incredibly fortunate in my career—Sandberg has to this day never reported to a woman; in six years, I’ve reported to three—or maybe I’m in denial. Maybe these issues become more pronounced at a higher level, i.e. on the 10th floor it’s all “gender schmender,” but take the elevator to 35 and men are still running things. Maybe — probably — it’s all of the above.
And even though I know gender is kind of the point of Lean In, I can’t help but feel that it limits the book, which would just as easily benefit entirely different subsets of professionals. Millenials, for example (I love me some Internet, but it has been shit for developing face-to-face networking skills.) Sandberg’s tips would be valuable for quiet types, baby boomers switching jobs, expecting fathers, and anyone that’s between 5 and 10 years into their career and not entirely sure what to do next. After all, no one really knows what they’re doing the first time they show up to an interview, or start a new job, or negotiate their first raise, or shepherd their first project. We’re all at the mercy of the Career Gods, and so Lean In’s topics aren’t really “women problems;” they’re people problems. (Which, some magazine should get on an “Ask Sheryl” career advice column ASAP.)
Of course Sandberg points out that women struggle with these issues disproportionately, not because of their “nature” but because of society’s expectations of them. Women aren’t supposed to be aggressive, or forthright, or ambitious. And when one does manage to shimmy her way up the corporate ladder, she never quite sheds the gender identifier (in a poignant moment, Sandberg points out that a Google search for “Facebook’s male CEO” turns up zero results. “Facebook’s female COO” turns up over 400.) So how is one supposed to be a driven, confident and successful woman, without alienating those who subscribe (intentionally or not) to outdated gender stereotypes? Lean In is part answer to that question, and part “Really ladies, who gives a fuck?”
Women, myself included, often have counterintuitively negative reactions to women’s issues. We don’t want to be considered successful women, just successful people. We don’t want our professional contributions to be qualified by our girl parts, and so discussing gender in the workplace feels anathema to achieving equality. And to this end, women get a lot of mixed messages. “You can do anything a man can, but you don’t have to take the same path as a man would, but you should behave aggressively and confidently like a man does, but also you should help your company effect change that will benefit women, which is something a man probably wouldn’t do.” As I mentioned in my review of How to Be a Woman (it’s been a big month for feminism on ST), it’s exhausting, running everything through the lens of womanhood. It’s another thing to think about, another battle to fight, another injustice to dwell on — and you’re never quite sure if talking about it is making things better or worse. Whether or not I identify with her anxious wallflower of an Average Woman, in Lean In Sandberg makes a decent argument for “better.”
TITLE: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead
AUTHOR: Sheryl Sandberg
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Every professional self-help book — 10 Ways to Be An Effective Leader, etc. — but not as dry
FIRST LINE: “I got pregnant with my first child in the summer of 2004.”