Lean In

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

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I’ve been looking forward to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book ever since I heard about it. I loved her TED talk, and felt sure it would address some topics that I’m very concerned with. As the reviews started coming out, and the backlash began, I only became more interested in forming my own opinion on the book causing all this debate.

For the most part, I think the nastiest parts of the backlash against Sandberg come from a phenomenon she describes herself: successful women are seen as unlikeable and are resented, especially by other women. It’s easy to feel a bit put off when someone so incredibly lucky and privileged goes on about how great things are for her. I know that feeling very well indeed. But it’s important to recognize that feeling as a personal, emotional reaction, rather than bringing it into an intellectual debate.

Sandberg’s critics say that in concentrating on the women at the top, she ignores those working low-paying jobs. I think it’s ok for Sandberg to write a book that has a narrow audience if she wants to. She is careful to specify that her advice is not suited to women working minimum wage, so she’s not steering anyone into economic suicide here. She voices a lot of empathy with women who don’t have fulfilling careers, and in fact her advice is meant to help them remedy that situation.

Other critics say that in giving strategies for women to survive in the corporate world and move up in its ranks, Sandberg is implicitly blaming the victim for not getting ahead. They say that responsibility should be laid at the feet of our sexist institutions and the policies that make it harder for women to succeed than men. Sandberg calls this a chicken-and-egg problem and admits that she’s focusing on one side of the problem and fully supports those who focus on the other. Sounds reasonable to me. There is room in this world for both individual and collective approaches to changing institutionalized sexism, and the two different ways of tackling the issue don’t have to undermine each other. Sandberg’s approach is probably more immediately satisfying, because I think it can feel more directly useful and encouraging to give individuals strategies for handling the everyday manifestations of sexism than to list the laws and policy changes that would make the world better for women, especially since those policies seem so far from becoming reality right now.

Of all Sandberg’s critics, her most fair and apt one focused on the many times that she contradicted herself in the book’s pages. I think a reader who feels torn about a particular professional or personal decision could come away from the book with justifications for almost any choice she could possibly make. This is partly because of all the qualifications and asterisks Sandberg feels compelled to add to her statements. It’s also because of the rhetoric of choice that’s grown up around this topic, which Sandberg mostly accepts. Either way, it leads to more confusion and angst for women trying to figure out how to balance their competing commitments. I’m not sure if there’s much of a way around this problem, though, because these decisions are so individual, and Sandberg is wise to avoid making one-size-fits-all recommendations.

Sandberg’s writing style is not her greatest strength. She has a tendency to introduce topics with bland cliches, and the tone is a cross between motivational speaker and management consultant. She’s not a literary stylist, but she doesn’t really have to be. She gets her message across, and I suppose that’s ultimately what matters.

Overall, I liked and enjoyed the book and felt motivated by its message. In some of the research and anecdotes Sandberg related, I recognized some of my own experiences, worries, and frustrations, and that made the book reassuring and resonant as well as encouraging. This book might become my go-to gift for all female graduates.

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6 thoughts on “Lean In

  1. Great review! I’d say individual and collective approaches to combating sexism (and other isms) are both completely necessary, and I don’t understand that particular criticism of Sandberg – because institutional sexism exists, women shouldn’t… work hard? Strive for leadership? Demand a seat at the table?

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