Lean In

I began reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead when the backlash against the book was just getting under way — some weeks in advance of its publication. By the time this review is published — and more people have actually read the book — the backlash to the backlash will be in full swing. Many of the columnists and bloggers who condemned the Facebook COO’s manifesto on women and work clearly hadn’t read it and were attacking not the message but the messenger, described snidely by Maureen Dowd as someone with a “grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots reigniting the women’s revolution.” But despite what you may have heard, Lean In isn’t the work of a tone-deaf elitist blaming other women for failing to achieve as much as she has; rather, it’s an explicitly feminist rallying cry whose purpose is to help women make gains in the workplace.

Sandberg, who holds a B.A. and an M.B.A. from Harvard and was in on the ground floor of Google before moving to Facebook, is not blind to the reality that most women’s circumstances are nowhere near as rarefied as hers. On the other hand, she refers early and often to the fact that women are generally struggling simply to make ends meet and provide for their families. Sandberg acknowledges that “parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work.”  

Those very women are outpacing men in college and graduate school, but the “academic gains have not yet translated into significantly higher numbers of women in top jobs.” Sandberg recognizes that women’s progress is hindered by overt discrimination — unequal pay and inadequate parental leave, for starters. But the focus of her book is on the ways women hold themselves back, “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be” — here’s the conceit of the title —  “leaning in.” Far from denying that structural barriers exist, as some have claimed, she makes clear that she has “written this book to encourage women to…forge a path through the obstacles.”

To that end, Lean In reads like a pep talk from someone who’s been in a male-dominated game (Sandberg points out that she has never reported to a woman) long enough to have seen women sabotage themselves in all kinds of ways, from scaling back at work in the mere anticipation of having children to downplaying accomplishments because they worry that their ambition will come off as unseemly.  Indeed, Sandberg herself cops to having made every mistake she writes about. A chapter with pragmatic advice for women on salary negotiation includes a revealing admission that she was reluctant to negotiate with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg after his initial salary offer, which she found fair. It was only after her brother-in-law yelled, “Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do the same job?” that she steeled herself and went back to Zuckerberg to demand an even better deal. “My brother-in-law didn’t know the details of my deal,” she writes. “His point was simply that no man at my level would consider taking the first offer.” Here, as she does throughout the book, Sandberg supports her point with ample social science research, in this case citing studies demonstrating that women, much more than men, fear that negotiating for higher salaries will decrease their likability.

As with the salary-negotiation episode, Sandberg’s forthright descriptions of her own experiences lend weight to the book. In some cases her candor is startling. “I worry constantly that my children are worse off because I’m not with them full-time,” she admits, describing her young daughter clinging to her leg and begging her not to go on a business trip. Elsewhere she confesses to being intimidated by stay-at-home moms. The ideal she looks to  is a world where men can more easily leave the workforce to care for children and more women have access to jobs like hers, which she considers rewarding enough to make the tradeoffs worthwhile.

Though she describes scenarios many women will relate to, Sandberg’s advice is not one-size-fits-all, in part because of the unique culture of Silicon Valley and the privileged perch from which she’s writing. She tells of a male intern advising Zuckerberg that he needed to improve his public speaking skills and being rewarded for his bluntness with a full-time job offer; it’s not difficult to imagine such a risky display of chutzpah backfiring. She also recalls, as a new mother, locking her office door at Google and secretly pumping breast milk during conference calls; most women, of course, don’t enjoy that level of privacy in their workplaces. And yes, her casual reference to flying on a corporate jet and the shout-outs to her buddies Gloria Steinem and Oprah in the acknowledgements highlight Sandberg’s essential otherness. (When she mentions, gratefully, that she and her husband “can afford exceptional child care” and later refers to her “vast support system,” my mind wandered from the book into a wistful daydream about what my life might be like with similar resources.)

But to demand that Sandberg’s advice apply to all women, however, as some of her critics seem to, holds her to an impossible standard to which a man writing a similar book surely would not be subjected. Sandberg has spoken publicly on gender issues in the past, and in the book she anticipates the criticism that’s already being heaped upon her. “My hope is that my message will be judged on its merits,” she writes. To return to that salary negotiation with Mark Zuckerberg: some might wonder why they should care that the extremely wealthy Sheryl Sandberg managed to turn a good deal for herself at Facebook into an even better deal. But it’s easy to picture women readers applying Sandberg’s lesson to their own salary negotiations.  Say what you like about the messenger — that’s a message I wouldn’t want to lose.