Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: A Book Review

April 13, 2015
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By Lea Z. Singh |

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I just finished reading Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf, 2013). This post is the first part of my two-part book review.

I surprised myself by actually reading this book. I've criticized Sandberg's pushy feminism in previous articles, and I wasn't planning on wasting my time. But when I walked past it in the library, it stared me down: an express 7-day loan, a quick read! So I gave in on a whim.

And you know what? Shockingly, I found myself kind of liking Sheryl Sandberg. She is not a horrible dragon. She is not Hillary Clinton. She doesn't seem to have an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda of leftism. She is an ambitious and intelligent business woman, and she worked hard to succeed in the corporate world. Now she wants to inspire other women to do the same.

Moreover, I was able to make more sense of this book, and to place it into a greater context, having first read read Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte. This preparation helped me to understand one thing right off the bat: Sandberg is a success in the "ideal worker" culture.

This was an enormously important realization. Sandberg's intention in writing this book was to encourage women to aim for leadership positions, and to offer advice on how to succeed in the corporate world. The problem is, as Bridid Schulte identified in Overwhelmed, the current corporate culture is failing both men and women in huge ways.

So while Sandberg's advice on how to succeed may be helpful, it doesn't really tackle the major underlying question: is success in this 'bloodsucking' corporate world really worth it? Is Sheryl Sandberg's life really worth having, given the high personal costs involved in attaining and maintaining it?

As for myself, having read her descriptions of her own overworked life, the answer is no - while Sheryl Sandberg may have provided the blueprint for success in the 'ideal worker' culture, she has not enticed me that the effort is worth the prize.  Despite the success she has achieved, I still have no desire to "be Sandberg", and I think many women feel the same. When I read her stories about her frantic life away from her small children, I felt not a sense of admiration but a great sadness and grief.

So let's dive in:

How to deal with loss of family time?

One of the main costs of success in the ideal worker culture is the loss of family time. It's a price that many women, including myself, are not willing to pay. When small children come into the picture, many of us exit the unreasonably demanding workforce, or we just pedal in place and stop reaching for the top.

Of course, Sheryl Sandberg is okay with giving up a huge chunk of family time. She paid this price right from the start, and still pays it every day. She is candid about this in Lean In and gives examples, like the the first time when her son cried for his nanny instead or her, or when her three-year-old daughter held her leg tight and begged her not to leave for a work trip. "To this day, I count the hours away from my kids and feel sad when I miss a dinner or a night with them. Did I have to take this trip? Was this speech really critical for Facebook? Was this meeting truly necessary?" (135)

She is clearly a very busy person, and while she makes sure to eat dinner with her family each night, she doesn't seem to have time for a whole lot more (and I'm pretty sure that she doesn't cook the dinner, either). She considers it a big achievement to be home for dinner, and seems to be fairly pleased with her "balance". But for me, this kind of setup would be woefully inadequate, as I would feel completely disconnected from my children. All the money in the world can't make up for that.

Still, if I did want to replicate Sandberg's life, then these are the steps she suggests as necessary:

(1) Sandberg encourages women to become like men, and get over their 'working mother guilt'.

"Guilt management is just as important as time management for mothers." (135). Sandberg points out that men don't feel guilt over not being with their kids. Even her own husband feels very differently from her: "Far from worrying about nights he misses, Dave thinks we are heroes for getting home for dinner as often as we do." (135)

Sandberg is right. Men have a far easier time being at work all day, since they are just fulfilling societal expectations of the "ideal father". They get positively reinforced and rewarded for conforming to gender norms. They don't have guilt over losing time with their kids, because they are sure that it's not supposed to be their job to be with them all day. Working men are swimming happily with the current.

On the other hand, women who are at work all day are constantly fighting against the current, and it's exhausting. They are fighting societal expectations of the "ideal mother" who is 100% available to her children. Those expectations are just as much in their own heads as in everyone else's. The result is a brickload of guilt, which many working mothers nurse and carry almost like another child.

(2) Sandberg rolls out the evidence, to prove that our guilt is misplaced and unnecessary.

To help us get rid of the terrible guilt of not being "ideal mothers", Sandberg brings out some big guns. She writes: "Study after study suggests that the pressure society places on women to stay home do 'what's best for the child' is based on emotion, not evidence." (125) "Some research has shown that 'children, parents, and marriages can all flourish when both parents have full careers.'"(24)

This is very interesting stuff. I am not sure I am convinced, but it does make me think outside the box.

(3) Sandberg suggests that we learn to trim down all the fat from our jobs.

In an ideal worker culture, this is a very tricky dance. Once her children came along, Sandberg definitely felt overwhelmed at work. She gives some examples, including her frantic first maternity leave, when she completely failed to unplug from work despite a prior resolve to do so. She says:
"I was back on e-mail from my hospital room the day after giving birth....Over the next three months, I was unable to unplug much at all. I checked e-mail constantly, I organized meetings in my living room...I went into the office...baby in tow. And while I had some nice moments with my son, I look back at that maternity leave as a pretty unhappy time." (127)
Sandberg also describes how she tried for years to cut back on sleep, getting 4-5 hours per night until she realized that she was an emotional mess no different from her own toddlers. (122)

Eventually, Sandberg decided that something had to give. Her daring leap was the decision to leave her office much earlier than everyone else, so that she could be home in time for dinner with her family. Naturally, she then worked from home after her children's bedtime. Still, this was a gigantic step for Sandberg, as she herself admits:
"Every job will demand sacrifice. The key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice. This is especially hard since our work culture values complete dedication. We worry that even mentioning other priorities makes us less valuable employees. I have faced this too....While the impact of my actually leaving work early was negligible, admitting that I went home at five thirty turned out to be kind of a big deal."  (155) 
(4) Sandberg insists that we must learn to share our housework and child care equally with our husbands.

Sharing family duties is absolutely crucial for women's success, as Sandberg makes clear: "I don't know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully - and I mean fully - supportive of her career. No exceptions....In a 2007 study of well-educated professional women who had left the paid workforce, 60 percent cited their husbands as a critical factor in their decision." (110)

In this connection, Sandberg shares an interesting thought on why the old-time division of labour in the home is so persistent despite today's two-income family realities: "the homes we create tend to be more rooted in our childhoods. My generation grew up watching our mothers do the child care and housework while our fathers earned the wages. It's too easy for us to get stuck in these patterns. It is no surprise that married and cohabiting men whose mothers were employed while they were growing up do more housework as adults than other men." (110)

The solution: we need to encourage fathers to 'lean in' to their family.  There is lots of research which shows that this is a good idea:
  • "The data plainly reveals that sharing financial and child-care responsibilities leads to less guilty moms, more involved dads, and thriving children." (24) 
  • Research also shows that "equality between partners leads to happier relationships. When husbands do more housework, wives are less depressed, parital conflicts decrease, and satisfaction rises....the risk of divorce reduces by about half when a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework." (116) 
  • "When fathers provide even just routine child care, children have higher levels of educational and economic achievement and lower delinquency rates. Their children even tend to be more empathetic and socially competent. These findings hold true for children from all socioeconomic backgrounds, whether or not the mother is highly involved."(113)
  • "For men, participating in child rearing fosters the development of patience, empathy, and adaptability, characteristics that benefit all relationships." (118)

Sandberg's Lean In TED Talk

Sandberg's book came out of a TED Talk that Sandberg gave in 2010. Watch this talk here, as well as her follow-up from 2013, and you will have a nice "executive summary" of Lean In:




...To Be Continued


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