Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has been out for a few weeks now, and while I know readers have had a discussions here and there — as well as lots of discussion about the various articles about Lean In — I thought I’d add my own $.02 and give you guys a centralized place to discuss the book.
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To begin with: I was not expecting to like this book as much as I did. I was surprised to find Sandberg really personable and funny, and I found myself nodding to a lot of what she said (if not saying YESYESYES, as you’ll see below). I also appreciated the thorough research and facts in the book — the
index notes section is almost fifty pages long.
On the flip side, there were still a few things that made my eyebrows shoot up, where I think she is being over-optimistic. And these are incredibly difficult questions, so maybe we need someone to dream big… but some of it just doesn’t resonate with me. For example:
– Every reviewer notes that Sandberg is writing for elite women, but all of her examples of women in the book were superstars. Not just the women who had attended the good colleges and gotten higher degrees, but the women who were remembered years after they had left the workforce and had high-level positions created for them. How many workers, male or female, have had that happen to them?
– Another big problem with the book is that she presumes it’s easy for people to find really interesting, exciting work in general, in both the “job” category and the “career” category. In my experience (my own as well as my friends, both male and female), this simply is not common. Finding a career and a job you’re passionate about are two incredibly difficult hurdles — almost as difficult as finding your life partner, I think. For that woman who has both the amazing career and the amazing job (or even one of the two), I think it’s much, much easier to go back to work (barring child-specific woes such as health or behavioral problems).
But what about the rest of us? I worked as a lawyer for nine years, give or take, and I never quite felt like I’d hit my stride. There was one example she gave of a friend of hers who did feel indifferent to her career and job, but notes that after fifteen years the woman finally found the work to be rewarding. I can see how that might be true, and I’ve even heard readers say it — but let’s be honest: I doubt Sandberg’s friend’s return to work was based on her ambition or “leaning in,” as Sandberg hopes for all of us — instead it was based on one of those other two powerful (and valid) reasons to go back to work: wanting/needing more money, or disliking the drudgery of childcare. That said, I don’t think either of those motivators is necessarily going to get you to the C-suite.
– Something that I both agreed and disagreed with was her characterization of a career as a marathon. She writes: “The male marathoners are routinely cheered on: ‘Lookin’ strong! On your way!'” But the female runners hear a different message. ‘You know you don’t have to do this!’ the crowd shouts. Or ‘Good start — but you probably won’t want to finish!’ … As women struggle to endure the rigors of the race, spectators shout, ‘Why are you running when your children need you at home?'” (pp. 100-101)* It’s an apt analogy, I think… but a difficult one because I do think of it as a right won by feminism for women to say, “You know, maybe a marathon sounded like a better idea in theory,” or “ooh, look, a nice jungle gym to go play on” (Sandberg later analogizes a career to a jungle gym instead of a ladder, something I definitely agree with.) (Or even: “Hey, the marathon ends when I’m 65 — I’m going to finish, but I”m going to pause for a little while.”) One of the other things that always bugs me about discussion of women “dropping out” is that I haven’t seen any really rigorous study of where they’re going. I think a lot of smart women decide that investment banking, law, or consulting are great starting points for them — a way to pay back school loans, to build their bank accounts, to wash off the naivete of youth and grow up a bit — and then leave to start businesses, which are inevitably derided as “pink ghettos” because they fill a need for women that wasn’t there before. (Obviously, I’m a case in point.) I think the conversation tends to be too black and white — you’re either in or out, you work full time or you don’t, you finish the marathon or you don’t — and women who make their own way (as Forbes recently noted, many of them making more than $100K for less than 20 hours of week a work) are put into the “dropped out” category.
The stuff I agreed with:
– imposter syndrome (p. 29) – Sandberg jokes about how at her Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony at Radcliffe, the women listened to a speech called “Feeling Like a Fraud,” and how she and her “brilliant and totally-not-a-fraud roommate” were nodding vigorously. Later, telling one of her male classmates about the keynote he was completely befuddled as to why it would be interesting, and Sandberg and her roommate joked that the speech the men listened to “was probably something like ‘How to Cope in a World Where Not Everyone Is as Smart as You.'” — YESYESYES. I have always felt like an imposter. As a lawyer, as an honor-roll student, even now writing this blog — it’s a burden that I carry with me. I wish I’d heard about the imposter syndrome as early as college, when Sandberg did — instead I learned about it in my mid-20s, and was SO RELIEVED to know that my amazing, intelligent, totally-not-a-fraud friends felt the same way I did.
– “maternal gatekeeping” (p. 108) — she talks about how a lot of women discourage their husbands from doing their share at home by being too controlling or too critical. YESYESYES. This needs to be a longer discussion here on Corporette, but a short story now: I’ve definitely done this to my husband, and it was only sheer exhaustion in the early days of our son’s life that I didn’t go more insane than I did about his diapering habits. Even now we “joke” about laundry — my husband loves to “do” a load or two of laundry every day when he comes home; in part because it gives him a feeling of accomplishment. But he doesn’t really love putting it away, and he frequently forgets about it entirely. (He also will mix like four different laundry hampers together to get one load, which means that whoever puts it away (ahem) has to open every drawer and closet in the house for one or two pieces of clothes. OH THE HUMANITY! It feels silly even whining about this now. Instead of constantly arguing with my husband about the definition of “doing” the laundry, feeling like he’s “leaving it for me to do,” or discouraging/banning him from doing it entirely, I’ve learned to just enjoy the fact that we usually have clean clothes, and not fret about them being in piles all over the apartment.
– how to get a mentor (pp 64-84) — lots and LOTS of great advice here. I agree with her that a mentor is an occasional force in your life, not someone prepared to do excessive hand-holding; sometimes mentors can be created by asking for feedback.
– setting personal goals on a long-term basis as well as a shorter, 18-month plan (59) — I really like this idea and am going to try adopting it. I’m a big maker of lists and to-do plans, but I like the time frame idea. I thought her description of how she presses herself to learn new skills was really helpful — she describes how she had worked at Google for more than four years, yet never negotiated a business deal, and so she asked her boss to give her a chance. It’s the kind of thing that I think we all should be doing.
– touting other women’s achievements — I think this is a difficult line to walk. On the positive side, I thought a great example of this in the book was when she describes the four female executives at Merrill Lynch who, in 2004, started having lunch together once a month, and afterwards they would all go back to their offices and tout one another’s achievements. (pp 164-165) I can imagine that example being a totally natural kind of thing — “I know __ just successfully handled this issue, let’s go talk to her.” On the “is she seriously suggesting this?” side, at one point she notes that junior women can support senior women who have been interrupted by “gently but firmly telling the group, ‘Before we move on, I’d like to hear what [senior women] had to say.'” (p. 149) What the whatwhat? I don’t think so — if I were the senior woman who had that done to me by some whippersnapper I would be seething.
Readers, what are your thoughts about Lean In? What were the parts of the book that had you nodding YESYESYES, and which parts had you scratching your head?
* All page references are to the first edition of the book by Knopf.