Book Review

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg

As half the world surely knows by now, Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook. At 43, she has risen to the top of the ferociously competitive boy-wonder world of Silicon Valley – no easy achievement for a woman – and has a personal fortune of more than $500 million. She has had a stellar career: two degrees from Harvard, coming top of her economics class; recruited by Larry Summers, her long-time mentor, to work at the World Bank; on to McKinsey & Company; back to work with Summers at the US treasury department; and then a move to Google, where she became a vice-president until Mark Zuckerberg made her an offer she coul not refuse.

On the personal front, she has two young children and an apparently wonderful husband who was prepared to leave his job in Los Angeles and move to where she was based to support her career and share equal childcaring responsibility.

A measure of her celebrity can be found in this book’s acknowledgments, which run to a full eight pages. The people she thanks include her “writing partner”, who also helps her with her speeches; a sociologist from Stanford University, who worked as the book’s lead researcher; other Ivy League experts in gender; a legion of editorial assistants; and an A-list of American luminaries – Gloria Steinem, Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, Summers – who read drafts and gave advice.

This treasury of financial and human resources has been the source of some carping in reviews of the book (many by women), with barbed questions about how Sandberg, from her privileged perch, could understand the lives of average working women. She attempts to create an emotional link with the rest of us by describing her acute embarrassment when, on a plane journey with her children, she found lice in her daughter’s hair – but this is somewhat undermined by the fact that the plane in question was a private jet owned by eBay.

But you could take a different view of her privilege. You could reflect how fantastic it is that a woman of such stature and achievement, who has access to such a powerful network of friends and colleagues and who can command public attention, has taken on the issue of gender equality and, not content with that, wants to turn it into a social movement. She could, after all, have simply decided to concentrate her energies on just getting richer and ignoring women. And then we would have criticised her for being a queen bee.

She recites the challenges facing women: the tiny percentage who make it to leadership positions; the sluggish pace of progress on a range of critical issues, including equal pay; the dropping out of highly educated women from the workforce; and the disheartening fact that the women’s movement has stalled and is largely ignored by younger women.

Sandberg addresses the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum the women’s movement has always faced. The chicken: should women focus on achieving leadership positions so that they then have the power to dismantle the institutional barriers to equality? The egg: do we need to eliminate the external barriers women face getting into such roles in the first place? She acknowledges that the battle must be fought on both fronts but opts to focus her energies on the chicken, specifically the internal barriers that hold women back.

The book provides a comprehensive scientific review of many such psychological barriers, including persistent gender stereotypes and biases held by both men and women. But it is her now famous assertion that women are reluctant to “lean in” that has grabbed most attention. The problem, Sandberg says, is that women psychologically withdraw at work. They hang back at meetings and are hesitant t speak up. They are reluctant to take risks. They voice their self-doubt about having the requisite experience when asked to take on stretch assignments that position them for higher-status jobs. They choose the “mommy track” even before they marry or become parents.

Instead, she exhorts women not to “leave before you leave”. Give your career your all; then you will be in a better position to negotiate your position when you do have a baby and need more flexible arrangements. The more women like their position at work, the less likely they are to leave. She acknowledges that returning to work after the birth of a baby can be difficult and heart-wrenching but argues that “only a compelling, challenging and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest”.

She supplies colourful examples of gender bias from her own career. At the end of a stint working in Washington for her local congressman, she was introduced to the speaker at the time, Tip O’Neill. The speaker reached over, patted her head, remarked on how pretty she was and asked her only one question: was she a pompom girl?

She is frank about her own insecurities and self-doubt. Voted by her high-school class as the one most likely to succeed, she requested that the accolade be scratched from the yearbook, as she feared that being branded smart and successful might put boys off asking her for a date. She cites the research showing that while success is a dividend for men, successful women are still penalised unless they are also “likable”. But she will still outrage the more ideological wing of feminism by advising women to negotiate hard but to smile a lot and take a more “communal” stance because that’s what women are expected to do.

She also deals to some extent with the egg part of the equation, citing the need for more generous and less costly childcare and more flexible work arrangements. But she focuses almost exclusively on what the individual or organisations can do, not on what the state ca do. In that respect, the book has a very US focus and sounds lopsided to European ears.

Sandberg is also a champion and exemplar of the ferocious American work ethic. This is a woman who routinely worked from 7am to 7pm, and almost certainly a few more hours online in the evenings. She admits to meeting her work demands only by skimping on slee She took her three months’ maternity leave but worried that her job would not be there when she returnedD. After a difficult pregnanc – she suffered severe nausea every day for the nine months – and a long labour, she nonetheless took the precaution of going back to her emails in her hospital room the day after giving birth.

She agonised about the new schedule she adopted when she returned to work from maternity leave: not arriving until 9am and leaving at 5.30pm, in time to nurse her baby and put him to bed, and then rushing back to the computer. She was prescient about how radical this would appear to others. When she described her postbaby schedule to an interviewer a few years later it unleashed a storm of reaction. “I could not have gotten more headlines if I had murdered someone with an ax,” she writes. Even now, she admits that as Facebook is available around the world 24/7, so too is she, and the days of “unplugging” for the odd weekend or vacation are “long gone”.

The part of her book that has received less attention is her vision of what true equality might look like, a world where “half our institutions are run by women and half our homes are run by men”. This second half of the equation is as important as the first and, arguably, much nearer the core issue. We are still a long way from achieving that. She recites the dreary list of studies that continue to show how women continue to be disproportionately responsible for childcare and home duties. An example: when husband and wife ar both working full time, mothers still do 40 per cent more childcare and 30 per cent more housework than fathers.

But rather than blame men, she points to the male gender stereotypes that constrain them. For example, when men and women prioritise family over work by taking parental leave or reducing hours at work, both are penalised but men may pay an even higher price: teasing, lower performance ratings and reduced promotional prospects. To add further complexity, men’s success is judged not i absolute terms but often in comparison to their wives’ success. She recounts how people frequently pull her aside to ask sympatheticall about her husband: “ ‘How is Dave? Is he okay with, you know, all your’ – whispering – ‘success?’ ” She claims that she and her husband laugh this off, yet she feels compelled to add that “Dave is far more self-confident than I am”.

I suspect that many women who might favour the addiction-to-Sky-Sports hypothesis will think this an overly forgiving account of why men still don’t do their fair share at home. And she does not deal with the glaring fact that there seems to be no great appetite among men to change the status quo.

So what can women do? Well, they can pick the right man, says Sandberg. She offers earnest advice to women about choosing a life partner, advising them to go for someone “who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home.” These men exist, she assures us. Pity that the Lean In movement she is initiating does not include a recruitment drive to identify such deeply desirable men. Now that would really ignite the equality revolution. 

Originally published in the Irish Times. 

Posted: 17 October 2013