Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg
New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

As the author is, by her own admission, a detail-oriented and highly organized individual, she structured her book so that each of the chapters focused on a particular concept or theme. As such, I will review it chapter by chapter, followed by a discussion of the criticisms put forth by serious feminist thinkers.

Chapter Summaries and Themes

Sandberg's introduction, “Internalizing the Revolution,” begins, like most of the chapters to follow, with an anecdote that she will then relate to a larger concept or theme. She discusses how, until she became pregnant herself, she didn't realize that pregnant women might actually need designated parking spaces closer to the building they work in, in order to accommodate their increased difficulty in getting around.

She connects this idea to what I would consider the overall theme of this book: that in order to make the workplace (which, in Sandberg's somewhat limited worldview, is the corporate world she resides in) an area where women aren't disadvantaged professionally, we need more women in leadership positions. Sandberg contends:

This is the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation. The chicken: Women will tear down the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. The egg: We need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into those roles in the first place...I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg.

She concludes that, “conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”

In other words, women can't count on men to know what we need in the workplace; we need to be in charge in order to make the workplace a truly level playing field. I find that this lets men off the hook a bit; I think a more radical idea would be one in which we expected men to take women into consideration more in the workplace, instead of adopting an “if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself” attitude. Given that feminists advocate for equality of the sexes, I believe the majority of feminists would prefer to focus on breaking down the external barriers that women face in order to level the playing field.

But since we do not live in an ideal world where communication between the genders occurs flawlessly, and men cannot always intuitively realize what women need, I completely agree that Sandberg's idea is one we should devote serious efforts to achieving. We need to focus on both the chicken and the egg.

Sandberg speaks about external and internal barriers often throughout Lean In. While we can't control external barriers, such as our place of employment having no pregnancy parking, women can control internal barriers, beliefs or actions that women have that inadvertently hold them back. The title of the book refers to one of these internal barriers: that women can unwittingly “pull away” from their careers when they start to think about having children, or even well before that, and that instead, they should feel free to “lean in” to their jobs.

While I found the idea of personal responsibility and accountability compelling, some of the examples she cited throughout the book felt a bit like blaming the victim to me, a phenomenon that feminists almost universally decry. However, the idea that women can make changes for themselves in order to promote their own interests can also give them a greater sense of agency, I believe, which is a powerful message for Sandberg to advocate.

One thing that struck me from the very beginning of Lean In was how diplomatic and cautious the author seemed at times; she seemed very cognizant of the idea of offending certain individuals or groups with her ideas, and was very careful to point out that her book might not be relevant to those who weren't “fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work.” She even anticipates some of the criticisms her book will have before it is even reviewed!

Despite this almost hyper-awareness on the part of the author, there are still parts in the book where she seems painfully out of touch with the average working woman, whom she is ostensibly attempting to relate herself to. A tale designed to impart to the reader the idea that being an uber-successful businesswoman doesn't mean she doesn't struggle as all mothers do fails miserably when she reveals she realized one of her sons had lice on one of eBay's private jets.

The first chapter, “The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?” explores the idea that more men than women aim for managerial positions. The chapter also discusses a major barrier that women face: when male employees are ambitious, it is viewed favorably, but when women act in a similar manner, it is viewed as a shortcoming, a less-than-desirable trait. Again, she is careful to say that there is nothing wrong with those who have different goals, so as not to offend.

Sandberg goes on to say that fear of what others will think is the cause of many internal barriers women create for themselves: of not being liked, of making the wrong decision, of judgment, of failure, and encourages women to “take risks” and “be bold.” I found bland, vague pronouncements like these to be so unspecific as to be utterly unhelpful to any professional woman, but I did agree with her discussion of the perception of ambition as it pertained to the genders.

The chapter titled “Sit at the Table” centers on how women need to increase their self-confidence in the workplace. The author discusses the idea that women consistently doubt and underestimate themselves, and that men are far more likely than women to pursue opportunities even when they don't necessarily have the experience or credentials needed. Her advice, again, is somewhat banal: she encourages the reader to follow the “fake it 'til you make it” strategy, and to be less hesitant about switching roles and looking for new challenges.

Advice like this may seem helpful, but it's so vague that it's difficult to know how the author intends for the reader to put it into practice. To me, the author just seems to be generically endorsing “acting like a man.” Feminists often contend that, from birth, men and women are treated differently and as a result, grow into adults with very different ways of viewing themselves. It seems like an exceptionally tall order to turn around and demand that women just start thinking and behaving entirely differently in order to advance their careers. A more female-friendly strategy would be to make it acceptable to “act like a woman” at work and not have to mimic a man to be successful. It's easy for the author to state that women need to learn to believe in themselves and their abilities, but many will find this advice almost useless if there are no concrete, specific ways offered of how to put that thought into action.

The next chapter somewhat continues what I've touched on in the previous paragraph: the idea of how women act. “Success and Likeability” advances the idea that women face a Catch-22 of sorts: in order to be successful, people need to be well-liked. So as not to be perceived unfavorably, women need to be accommodating, but if they do this, they aren't seen as potential leaders. On the other hand, women that aren't accommodating aren't well-liked, so we face problems either way.

Sandberg's advice here might infuriate feminists, but I thought her ideas made sense. Women, she says, should appeal to men's preconceived notions of femininity, being pleasant and nurturing, when navigating negotiations in the workplace. She also suggests that women should lean on and support each other during difficult work situations and in general. I appreciated that Sandberg didn't insist (unlike last chapter) that women imitate men in these instances, but I felt that the chapters blatantly contradicted one another.

One point, however, stood out the most in this chapter: that if there were to be a critical mass of women in leadership positions, the somewhat silly pandering to feminine stereotypes wouldn't be necessary, as people would come to see women being leaders as nothing out of the ordinary. It's a legitimate and surprisingly frank point.

Chapter 4, “It's a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder” features a discussion of the limitations imposed by looking at one's career trajectory as a ladder, with only two directions to move in, up or down. Instead, she suggests looking at one's career more like a jungle gym, with many points of access and ways to reach the summit. Her point is that women should be flexible enough to pursue an incredible opportunity if she comes across one, without being concerned about whether it's a “step down.”

She gives specific, actionable advice here, but it hardly applies only to women: she urges women to set two kinds of goals, one eighteen-month goal and one longer-term goal, to work at concurrently. The eighteen-month goal is one in which an individual should set targets for themselves and the longer-term goal is where you should be open to taking risks and trying out different roles. Ideas like these sound more like part of a businessperson's manifesto, not a feminist manifesto.

At first, I was puzzled by the inclusion of the next chapter, “Are You My Mentor?”, in which the author tells women that they shouldn't try to force someone into the role, but rather, let it happen organically. Again, this seemed like generic advice one would give to recent MBA graduates to me, until I realized that apparently, the idea of having a mentor is one that is stressed as a major component to being successful.

The dynamics of male-female business relationships are discussed in this chapter as well, which could have provided some interesting angles to the topic of mentorships, but Sandberg merely puts forth her opinion that women should aim to be professional and that both sexes should enact policies that promote parity, which are hardly groundbreaking suggestions.

When I read the title of Chapter 6, “Seek and Speak Your Truth,” I was surprised; it seemed more like a maxim for a new-age guru, not the COO of a Fortune 500 company. I was even more surprised to discover what the chapter pertained to, which was the idea that instead of adhering to the arguably male-imposed dictum that we have separate personas for work and for real life, women should feel comfortable being their authentic selves in the workplace.

From a feminist standpoint, I think that having the ability to be free from anxiety over what repercussions expressing their emotions could have in a professional setting would be extremely liberating for women. Doing away with the tired notion that expressing emotion is a weakness could go a long way towards establishing equality in the workplace.

The chapter titled “Don't Leave Before You Leave” struck me as one likely considered most problematic by feminist critics of Lean In. Sandberg relates the idea that many women will start to pull back in the workplace in anticipation of the sacrifices they will have to make once they decide to have children, and stresses that women should “lean in” instead. Her solution to this is that companies and employees should discuss womens' plans for starting families more readily, which doesn't seem like even a remote possibility in our litigious society. Furthermore, it could have the opposite affect; instead of alleviating a burden on a woman, it could actually impose one.

Sandberg, in this chapter and the next, “Make Your Partner A Real Partner,” highlights the real issue at play here, in my opinion: that men simply aren't contributing as much effort as they should to child-rearing and housework that women are, nor are they expected to. It's hardly surprising that women would lessen their productivity at work, given this state of affairs, so instead of blaming women, it seems that it would be more productive to focus strictly on the idea that she fleshes out in “Make Your Partner A Real Partner:” that not only do men need to devote more time to their children and homes, but also, we need to foster and support a culture that encourages and permits men to put in this time. This is a stellar goal for ensuring that women gain equality in the workplace and really, in general, and I commend the author for making the case for this.

I had thought we as a culture had realized that it wasn't truly possible for women to “have it all,” but in Chapter 9, “The Myth of Doing It All,” Sandberg points out that for many women, internal and external perceptions lead them to believe that women can have successful, fulfilling careers while taking care of all of the tasks related to home and childcare, and as a result, feel stressed, guilty, resentful, or like failures when they cannot. Sandberg urges women to ask, “Can we do it all?” instead of “Can we have it all?” and also urges them to answer decisively that no, they cannot do it all.

She reiterates the need for “a real partner” and talks a lot about the worries and fears of working mothers, but doesn't offer much in the way of advice, nor did I expect her to. Aside from telling women not to feel guilty that they can't spend nearly as much time with their children as stay-at-home mothers do, there isn't much else she could have offered.

Chapter 10, “Let's Start Talking About It,” is a call for everyone, male and female, to stop pretending we don't have “preconceived notions about masculinity and femininity (that) influence how we interact with and evaluate colleagues in the workplace,” and start honestly and openly discussing these issues, so that we can begin to deal with and hopefully move past them. We have to admit our gender biases in order to remain cognizant of behaviors and actions that promote inequality in the workplace.

I can't disagree with what she's prescribed here – dealing with gender issues in the workplace will likely be contentious for a while to come, so there really isn't much to be gained by sticking our heads in the sand and acting like everything is fine. We need to establish honest dialogues about these issues instead of continuing to buy into the fallacy that women can “have it all.”

Sandberg's conclusion, “Working Together Toward Equality,” insists that true equality “will only be achieved when more women rise to the top of every government and every industry” and that women must “do the hard work of getting there.” We all need to begin to acknowledge and understand how age-old stereotypes and gender biases inform our beliefs and maintain the status quo, she says, so that we can begin to not only accept our differences, but transcend them.

Sandberg posits that we all need to encourage women who aspire to be leaders, and calls attention to the fact that this support is often lacking in men and women. “An 'us versus them' crusade will not move us towards true equality,” she maintains, but “'nor will an 'us versus us' crusade.” She touches on the issues of guilt working mothers deal with again, pointing out that the purpose of feminism wasn't to make women feel guilty – it was to give us choices to make, and the freedom to not feel judged for those choices. Sandberg envisions a future where social norms about what women and men are expected to do, both personally and professionally, no longer exist, and calls on women to raise “both the ceiling and the floor.”

Criticisms of Lean In

Lean In caused quite a stir when it was published, becoming a literary sensation. At the time, I recognized that it was controversial, and made a note to read it at some point, more or less certain that this allegedly feminist tract written by a corporate businesswoman could hardly contain anything I would see value in. I also anticipated that feminist critiques of the tome would be largely negative. I was somewhat off on both counts, but not by much.

In a review for Women's Studies Quarterly, a publication I assumed would have nothing positive to say about Lean In, Rebecca Colesworthy writes that she found:

many elements of Lean In to be important and convincing. Having taught young women at the undergraduate and graduate levels who spoke of feminism strictly, and sometimes contemptuously, in the past tense, I am beyond thrilled that a woman in a position of power is publicly embracing the term. And I thoroughly agree that women should be more confident and need to better advocate for themselves.

Colesworthy also admired Sandberg's criticism and swift debunking of the “having it all” myth, which I mentioned earlier. However, she saddles Sandberg with a charge that is both severe and merited: that because of her field of expertise and the domain she inhabits, the author is guilty of viewing everything through the lens of capitalism:

What we are left with is a feminism that cannot – and in its will to lead, will not – think and act beyond the ideology of the market. Nothing is beyond measure here. Life, like work, is gauged in terms of losses and gains, trade-offs and payoffs, with an eye toward maximum productivity and profit.
Colesworthy makes an excellent point here. Her usage of language like this is pervasive in Lean In, and only contributes to the book's sanitized, corporate tone. Sandberg may be a brisk businesswoman who tells it like it is, but not all women view their careers and lives through business eyes, and such terminology restricts the audience this book will appeal to (and subsequently help) by appearing to be inclusive only of those with MBAs.

Colesworthy goes on to say that:

The problem is that if feminism fails to reflect on or take seriously the absolute colonization of everyday thought and praxis by capital, monetary or otherwise, it is bound to reproduce the very inequalities it aims to overcome. Thus, when Sandberg gives women the seemingly salutary advice to "be more open in taking risks n their careers," we not only should recall that having the choice to take risks is itself a rare privilege but also should hear an echo of the risk-driven financial industry that has helped widen the class divide between creditors and debtors, rich and poor.
Indeed, Sandberg's advice to “take risks” did ring a little hollow to me during my reading of the book. Perhaps that advice is valid in the business world, where stories of people taking incredible risks only to be rewarded with status, power and money beyond their wildest dreams are repeated and revered as gospel, but the average working woman can't be so bold when it comes to her financial security.

Susan Faludi's assessment of Lean In is a little more harsh, but no less valid. Faludi remarks that, “Beyond generic tsk-tsking about the pay gap and lack of maternity leave,” Sandberg is vague about her support of public policy reform, and concludes that, “If you were waiting for someone to lean in for child care legislation, keep holding your breath.” Though claiming to support workplace reform, Faludi continues, the details of subsidized child care or comparable worth aren't highly visible elements of Lean In. These are serious deficiencies apparent in Lean In, and Sandberg's brand of corporate feminism, stressing the individual's personal accountability over taking public policy to task hurt her argument.

Reviewer Myra H. Strober puts forth some intriguing opinions about the text as well. In regards to the idea that women aren't garnering leadership positions because of their lack of ambition or confidence, she replies that Sandberg is an economist, and as such, is well aware that “supply and demand work together to produce labor market outcomes, that the actions (or lack thereof) of work organizations to support women’s aspirations are at least as important in determining women’s success as women’s own efforts.”

Furthermore, Strober contends, Sandberg also realizes that government policies determine the “context in which labor supply and demand operate,” and that the lack of paid maternity and paternity leave compounded by the nonexistence of an affordable childcare system seriously restrict the ability of most women to remain in the workplace and perform as well as they could when they have small children. Yet Lean In does not have much to offer about reforming governmental policy or work environments. Strober and Faludi's arguments are similar in this vein, and again, I feel that the lack of attention paid to what Sandberg called “external barriers” in her book do a great disservice to the book's feminist credibility. Strober's review also calls into question the book's potential audience, and once more, I have to side with the reviewer, because the book cannot truly be taken seriously as a guide for anyone but highly educated women with the privilege of having options. Strober concludes that these women:

need to use their privileged position as highly educated women to redesign workplaces to provide more flexibility and they need to work to ensure that their governments provide a context supportive to workers who are raising children.

This sort of rhetoric would simply not fly in Sandberg's book, which at times bends and contorts itself almost frantically in its efforts not to offend anyone.

Paaige K. Turner's review of Lean In provides much of the same criticisms Faludi and Strober bring to the table about the structures and policies in place that hinder women from fully realizing their potential at work. However, she presented a new angle: that the book could be an important text for scholars and instructors looking to challenge the perception that gender discrimination is no longer an issue. Sandberg's book, while falling short in some ways, is well-cited, and her standing as a businesswoman could lend a sort of neutral-party credibility to arguments about gender discrimination that others may have laid to rest some time ago.

The Guardian's review of Lean In, written by Zoe Williams, touches on some of the same points I made earlier about Sandberg's prioritization of not including anything that might offend in her book. Williams states that the author is “carefully inoffensive; she is always first to jump in with what she isn't saying, always first to articulate what might be a criticism against her.” Her unwillingness to articulate opinions that might be objectionable to some makes me wonder how much she might be holding back. Someone offering the criticism that Sandberg is the one who needs to lean in and develop her confidence more might not be that far off the mark.

Marcia Bok, in a review of Lean In, contends that the book could have some positive ramifications for women: it has the potential to resonate more with middle-class women in a way that a more political agenda for social change might not. Moreover, her position as a leader could make her more likely to be able to influence change. I agree with these points, but after reading the book, I'm skeptical that Sandberg is willing to use her privilege to try to sway public policy in any way; it would conflict with her brand, as the Lean In credo repeatedly stresses the efforts individual women can make to affect change in their professional lives.

Bok goes on to relate another issue I've addressed previously: the matter of who, exactly, Lean In purports to be useful to. Women with lower socioeconomic status and women of color would likely read this book and wonder exactly how Sandberg's ideas could be beneficial to them, as her book doesn't present solutions to the kind of problems they might have.

Beverly Stewart's review primarily focuses on the concerns other reviewers and I have brought to the foreground: that Sandberg, as a citizen of the corporate world, is so careful not to voice any ideas that might be truly radical in nature that her book is severely handicapped. She is too aware of how much it might cost her personally to voice any concerns that might be even slightly political, and it truly limits how effective Lean In can actually be.

Works Cited:

Bok, Marcia. "Book Review: Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead." Affilia. 28.4 (2013): Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

Colesworthy, Rebecca. "Lean Back: Lessons from Woolf." Women's Studies Quarterly. 42. 1 & 2 (2014): 154-160. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

Faludi, Susan. "Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not." Baffler. 23. (2013): Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

Stewart, Beverly. "Lean In? Run Away!." Thought & Action. 29. (2013): 151-153. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

Strober, Myra H. "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." Feminist Economics. 20.2 (2014): Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

Turner, Paaige K. "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." Women & Language. 36.1 (2013): Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

Williams, Zoe. "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg – review." The Guardian UK. 13 Mar 2013. Web. 22 Nov 2014.