The trouble with reading a book that has garnered a lot of bad press is that you’ve been set up to have an opinion before you’ve begun. The odds are against the book and/or the author and only the strong will weather the storm to read the book with some objectivity.
In this case, the odds seemed heavily stacked against Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a book that tells women how to pursue ambition, become better leaders and balance work and life. Written by the COO of Facebook, it had been ravaged prior to its release by the few who read it and others who hadn’t. Yes, you read that right. There were some writers who were very angry at Sandberg for writing, amongst other attacks, “a vanity project,” and, it turns out, they hadn’t read it.
I found similarity between Lean In and I am Malala, not in subject matter of course, but in the visceral response to the books based either on hearsay or on a resolve to dislike the author, full stop. However, what was lost was the message: in Malala’s case, the right of all children to an education and in Sandberg’s, the many lessons which I shall illustrate below that were whitewashed because, for example, women felt she is ill qualified to write about them because she is privileged.
It’s always easy to take pot shots at the privileged. However, what is surprising about the criticism towards Sandberg is that she acknowledges she’s speaking from a place of advantage — encouraging parents, incredible mentors at business school, super support structure at home, to name a few things. Why can’t we learn from a woman who is at the top instead of gnawing at her for not having done any time at the bottom? So much is written about “can women have it all?” (and I don’t just refer to Anne Marie Slaughter’s essay ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All?’) and the challenges women face in trying to balance work and parenting, that the stuff about how to forge ahead in their careers is ignored. Or, in the case of Sandberg, it is trashed because she, whose worth is reportedly $500 million, has it all so she has no right to tell us how to do anything. This is really very silly because a) no one expects Sandberg to have all the answers (and she never suggests she does), and b) if people actually read Lean In for themselves and not just the snarky commentary about it, they’d find the book is useful. (Incidentally, the same is true for I am Malala.) Sandberg writes Lean In from a place of “I get it”: she understands how difficult pregnancy is while working, how hard it is to balance family life and work — “Guilt management can be as important as time management for mothers,” she writes — and how this notion of “can women have it all?” causes a lot of angst: “The very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics and common sense,” she says.
Most importantly, Sandberg writes about the sexism women face in the workplace. This may be obvious to women in the workforce but it bears repeating and reminding. There is gender bias, sexism and sexual harassment and Sandberg gives some sad statistics about how far women have to go, despite the many successes of the feminist movement. Whether in the boardroom or in government, women trail far, far behind men in leadership positions. She writes about what needs to be done by women themselves to get ahead (in a nutshell, stop selling yourself short) as well as what the workplace needs to do: equal pay, paternity leave, better child care options. At home, men need to take on more chores and parenting duties thereby letting their children understand that Dad can heat up dinner, draw the bath, etc.
That Sandberg doles out all this advice without sounding overbearing is what makes Lean In so readable. She writes about herself in an honest manner, complete with examples of how vulnerable and insecure she has felt, even unable to accept her accomplishments when, for example, she was named by Forbes as one of the top 10 most powerful women in the world.
Sandberg identifies as a feminist and acknowledges the contributions women of the previous generation made to pave the way for women like herself. But she also talks about how women create barriers for themselves in the workplace. It can be in negotiating a pay package or in keeping their profiles low for fear of not being liked in the workplace. Being liked is important and women equate success with unpopularity, she writes. She argues that this is holding women back. “Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders, including female leaders themselves,” she writes.
Finally, Sandberg says, women in leadership positions have to encourage other women to lean in, find commonalities in addressing the issues they face and then pave the way. It’s a social movement she wants to create and participate in. She wants women to be inspired by women leaders and told “this is how you can do it.” And Sandberg has done a good job of doing just that with Lean In.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg
Random House, UK