Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, part 2

May 15, 2015

By Lea Z. Singh |

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I was saddened to hear of the recent sudden death of Sheryl Sandberg's husband Dave Goldberg, 47. Now that I've read Sandberg's book, I feel like I almost know her, and I mourn for her loss.

One of the truest sayings in history has got to be "We make plans, God laughs." Sandberg spent a lot of her book focusing on how important the support of husbands is in enabling women to forge ahead with their careers, and her husband was a prime example of that healthy support. She talked quite a bit about how Goldberg helped her out by taking on a hefty chunk of family duties.

Now, she will have to rechart her path as a widowed mother of two young children. She has enough resources to buy all the help that she needs, but she will still need more than that. She will probably find that she has to be personally more involved in her children's lives, because there will now be no one else to share the role of parent.

As such, in some ways Lean In is already becoming outdated in light of these tragic events in Sandberg's life. Perhaps another book will one day contain more mature reflections based on the difficult years that are to come.

In the meantime, here is the second (and final) part of my book review of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf, 2013). The first part of my book review is here.

Sandberg's book is geared towards success in the ideal worker culture. But that culture is far too rigid. It is built for the career trajectory of the distant provider father, and doesn't fit the lives of either working mothers or modern fathers. Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges that fact. She knows that as things currently stand, "[b]oth men and women can be penalized at work for prioritizing family, but men pay an even higher price." (114)

Sandberg does believe in the need for more and better parental leave and reduced work hours, flex time and other creative arrangements. But her book isn't really about pushing for those kinds of changes. Instead, she believes that women need to gear up to succeed in the corporate culture as it currently stands.

Once there are more women at the tops of corporations, Sandberg hopes that positive changes to corporate culture will follow - a kind of 'trickle down', if you will. "My hope, of course, is that we won't have to play by these archaic rules forever and that eventually we can all just be ourselves." (49)

On that note, it is interesting that Sandberg vigorously defends her friend Marissa Meyer, who chose to have no maternity leave at all after her first child was born, and who famously scrapped Yahoo's working-from-home option after becoming CEO. (160-161).

How can women get ahead in the ideal worker culture?

In a nutshell: become more like men, or at least fake it. The ideal worker culture is built all around men, and women will always be lacking unless they conform. So here are some ways in which Sandberg suggests women need to become more like men (this list is not comprehensive, just some examples):

(1) Women need to get more confident.

We need to stop second-guessing themselves and discounting their own knowledge and abilities. Don't wait for people to ask. Don't wait for the next big opportunity that's fully aligned with your credentials and experience. Make your own opportunities. The most important asset you have is not your credentials but your ability to learn, quickly and on the job. (35)

(2) Women need to give up the need to be seen as nice. 

Women are culturally expected to be 'nice' and nurturing. Sandberg quotes one prof who says: "Our entrenched cultural ideas associate men with leadership qualities and women with nurturing qualities....We believe not only that women are nurturing, but that they should be nurturing above all else. When a woman does anything that signals she might not be nice first and foremost, it creates a negative impression and makes us uncomfortable." (43)

(3) Women need to stop 'leaning out' far in advance of any actual need for it.

Don't stop reaching for the top in order to make room for children, when you are not even pregnant yet. "What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives - not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in." (95)

(4) Women need to get more assertive.

Sit at the board room table instead of on the side. Negotiate for your salary instead of accepting the first offer. Don't be afraid to promote and nominate yourself, to take risks and to reach for opportunities. However, Sandberg cautions that women need to be smart and tactical in doing these things, because gender bias works against them.
  • Women are expected to be concerned with others, not touting their own horns. When women "advocate for themlselves or point to their own value, both men and women react unfavourably." Result: Sandberg suggests that women "Think personally, act communally"  - "Whenever possible, women should substitute 'we' for 'I'. Also, justify your negotiations, so you don't look like you are just pushing yourself. Ex. "My manager suggested I talk with you" etc. (44-5).
(5) Stop believing the confusing messages that society sends you.

Sandberg notices that society is all messed up, and while men can have their cake and eat it too, women are basically trapped in a no-win tailspin:
"For many men, the fundamental assumption is that they can have both a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life. For many women, the assumption is that trying to do both is difficult at best and impossible at worst.Women are surrounded by headlines and stories warning them that they cannot be committed to both their families and careers. They are told over and over again that they have to choose, because if they try to do too much, they'll be harried and unhappy. (23)
(6) Start thinking differently about ourselves and all women

One thing that most people might not realize or expect is that women are just as guilty of gender bias against women as the rest of society. What does this mean? Studies have shown that successful women tend to be evaluated negatively by both men and women. Both men and women tend to see highly successful women as too bossy, cold and unfriendly, and so on (for highly successful men, the evaluation is positive). What's more, these evaluations are made even by women and men who consider themselves to have no gender bias.

Why is this? Society has ingrained gender biases in us on a subconscious level. Many people, even working women themselves, tend to view assertive men as "the boss", but women who are assertive are seen as "bossy". We have been programmed to reward men for traits that lead to success in the corporate world, but we punish and dislike women for exhibiting the same traits. Successful working women make us uncomfortable because they violate the unconscious expectation that workplace leadership is for men.

So, says Sandberg, to change the way society thinks about women, we need to start with ourselves.

Does it all make sense?

Sandberg comes across as genuine and nice. Despite her staggering success, many of her internal struggles turn out to be typical of well educated and professional women, and she is someone I can relate to on that basis. Sandberg appears to feel a deep solidarity with all women. She knows how hard it is to make it, and she wants to pay it forward.

Nonetheless, Sandberg's 'street cred' is no longer there for me. While Lean In comes across as very ra-ra girl power, I keep thinking back to Overwhelmed, and how that is actually much more the experience for a lot of women. It's undeniable that as COO of Facebook, Sandberg is in a privileged position where she can buy all the help that exists in this world. From that position, it's easier to hype up other women to "lean in" at all costs.

The irony is that with her money, Sandberg has already chosen another route - she has bought the ability to "lean out" wherever possible. Looking at the extensive acknowledgements at the back of the book, I noticed that Sandberg hired a sociologist to research this book for a year and a half, and she also had her speech writer be her "writing partner". Looking further, this book was truly the work of a substantial army of people, including specialists, researchers, and many editors.

What a contrast to Overwhelmed, which was the labour of love of a single woman journalist. Unlike Sandberg, Brigid Schulte had to take leave from her regular employment to write her book, because she did all the travel, interviews, research, number crunching and writing on her own. Could that be part of why her book is called Overwhelmed instead of Lean In?

What's more, Sandberg hasn't fully convinced me on a number of issues. For starters, I don't believe that women and men are pretty much interchangeable both at home and in the workplace. What's missing from Sandberg's theory is the recognition that it's not just misplaced guilt, or social conditioning, or mistaken ideas about what's best for children, that makes women lean out.

Many women genuinely want to stay close to their children, even if they really don't have to. Sandberg never mentions the natural need for attachment and bonding between mothers and small children (maybe she doesn't believe this need exists?). While mothers often have other plans these days, I think that children still need that bond. When mothers are too busy, it is the children who pay the greatest price.  A superficial relationship can't be good parenting.

It also bothers me that Sandberg's advice seems totally anti-feminist, because it still makes men's characteristics the ideal. It's back to old-school feminism by another name, because Sandberg's advice boils down to stuffing women into power suits with shoulder pads, and rewiring their brains and natural inclinations so that they turn into men. This seems to me fundamentally wrong, and it sells women short.

In the end, her advice for women to give up their natural inclinations is also bound to cause us even more guilt as we feel like we are failing at something else we are supposed to succeed at. Women can't ever really become men. We don't have the aggression because we don't have testosterone. We are just wired differently (see my earlier post on this issue: Do Women Need to Get More Confident?).

Men will continue to beat us at their own game, and we will continue to stew in resentment. As long as we are trying to become something we're not, we will never be truly confident and feel truly free.

So while it may be pie-in-the-sky, I would love to see a world where girl power doesn't mean acting like boys. Maybe in the next generation of career self-help books will examine things from a different perspective. Instead of wondering how women can succeed in the ideal worker culture, we can begin to wonder: what would the workplace look like if it were built around women's bodies and women's minds, instead of men's bodies and men's minds? How can we create a corporate culture that has two genuinely equal worker ideals: the ideal working woman and the ideal working man?

It just seems to me that despite all the celebrating and leaning in, we are not yet comfortable in our own skin.

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