Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Title: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: March 11, 2013
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads:

 In  Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential. 

Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and is ranked on Fortune ’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and as one of Time ’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2010, she gave an electrifying TEDTalk in which she described how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. Her talk, which became a phenomenon and has been viewed more than two million times, encouraged women to “sit at the table,” seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their goals with gusto.

In  Lean In,  Sandberg digs deeper into these issues, combining personal anecdotes, hard data, and compelling research to cut through the layers of ambiguity and bias surrounding the lives and choices of working women. She recounts her own decisions, mistakes, and daily struggles to make the right choices for herself, her career, and her family. She provides practical advice on negotiation techniques, mentorship, and building a satisfying career, urging women to set boundaries and to abandon the myth of “having it all.”  She describes specific steps women can take to combine professional achievement with personal fulfillment and demonstrates how men can benefit by supporting women in the workplace and at home.

My Review:

*Long, dissertation-like review alert!  You've been warned.*

I have been very, very curious about this book ever since it came out earlier this year.  I kept hearing all the negative criticisms of it: that Sandberg was putting down stay-at-home moms, that she was giving advice that was only practical for those who could afford nannies and housekeepers, etc.  This made me a little hesitant to jump in, because as a new stay-at-home mom who is decidedly leaning OUT, I already felt like I had a bad taste in my mouth from it.  Then I read Time Magazine's interview with her this past March, and I was further intrigued.  It highlighted many of the criticisms that I had already heard, but it also gave me further insight into her motivations behind the book.

I finally got my hands on a copy a few weeks ago...and I have a lot of feels to share.  Since this will get long, I'll tell you up front that many of them are not negative.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that Sandberg was amazingly upfront about her personal work/life choices.  The impression that I got from many of the critics was that the book was primarily composed of impersonal advice, without any connection to her personal values and struggles as a working mom.  That is definitely not the case at all.  I was most interested in what she had to say about her mom--someone who stayed home to raise her kids for many years before returning to the workforce, and yet Sandberg highlights her as someone who "leaned in" all her life.  Hmmmm.  Maybe she's not putting down stay-at-home moms after all?

However, despite Sandberg's ability to impart her advice on a personal level, I did struggle a bit with what I see as some contradictions in her opinions.  For example, she strongly pushes the point that she respects every woman's right to choose her path--whether she wants to work full-time, or stay at home, whatever.  We have all earned the right to make those decisions for ourselves.  She feels that everyone has different reasons for making their choices--biological, societal, etc though she clearly gives more credence to the societal pressures.  Thus, it is obvious that Sandberg wants women to remain in the workforce, due to the fact that she feels gender discrimination in the workplace can only be overcome if women continue to take on positions of leadership and power (a fair point).  As such, much of the advice in the book is centered around helping women manage their careers in a way that allows them to stay in their jobs after having kids.  I'm not saying that the advice she gives in that respect is bad--actually, I think it's quite good, IF that is your choice.  For example, she recommends that women "lean in" to their careers as much as possible before they have kids, so that when they do get around to having a family, they are in a job that satisfies them enough to want to return to their position.  This also often allows them to reach a point in their career where they can have a bit more flexibility in terms of maternity leave, schedule, etc. once they have children.

Is this a valid point?  I'd say so.  However, I think for some women, no matter how satisfied you are with your job, or how high you've climbed the career "jungle gym" (as she calls it) before you have kids, you are still going to value staying home with your children more than you value going back to work full time.  That's not true for everyone, but I do think it's true for some.  I'm just not sure that Sandberg truly recognizes this.  Much of the book discusses the barriers that she thinks keeps women from staying in the workforce after having kids--gender discrimination, not enough household help from spouses, etc. and these are certainly real issues.  But sometimes, I think you can have a woman who is in a job with great maternity benefits, a husband that splits the housework 50/50, and she'll still choose to stay home.  Despite Sandberg saying that she recognizes everyone's ability to choose, I think she does overlook this particular choice.  She has an obvious bias towards keeping women in the workforce as much as possible, and as such, it negates the idea that someone would make the choice to leave even if all of these other factors are accounted for.  For some women, staying home is always going to be more important than a job, and if they have the financial means to do it, they're going to make that choice every time.

I'll admit that I make this declaration out of personal experience--which I think is fair, since Sandberg's advice comes from her personal opinions too.  When my son was born, I had a well-paying job, increasing responsibilities given to my position, pretty solid union protection, amazing (AMAZING!) maternity leave benefits, and a boss that allowed me to go from full-time to part-time (3 days/week working 8am-4pm) indefinitely after I returned to work--with the option to go back to full-time whenever I wanted.  Hi, ideal work/family balance!  I'll admit that I didn't always adore the day-to-day aspects of my work, but overall, I did enjoy my field and the students I interacted with each day.  And yet, despite that ability, I always yearned to be able to stay home full-time.  When we moved and it became financially feasible for me to do so, I jumped at the chance, and I am very happy with that choice.  I have, quite decidedly, leaned out, and I don't know exactly when I'll have the desire to lean in again.  So, as with any rule, I think there are exceptions...and I believe I am the exception to Sandberg's.

Alrighty, let's recenter things here.  The first part of the book talks a lot about this idea of leaning in, putting yourself in a good job position before having kids, etc.  After that, the book takes more of a turn towards talking about workplace conditions for women, and what needs to change in order to create more gender equality in the workplace.  This information, I believe, is less of the "controversial" stuff that got everyone's hackles up over the book, because it's pretty solid advice for any woman in the workforce.  Sandberg has a lot of good suggestions about how to interact effectively with colleagues, how to assertively advocate for yourself at work, how to find good mentors, etc.  This second half of the book is good reading for women in any field to take into consideration during her day-to-day job interactions.  I know that I will keep much of it in mind if I do ever return to the workforce.  Plus, I think men would benefit from reading this as well, in order to get a better idea of any personal workplace biases that they may not even know they are acting upon.

Overall, I'd say that this book isn't nearly as controversial as many critics have claimed.  I think a lot of people got their backs up because Sandberg writes it very much from a personal perspective, and anytime advice is given in that way, people are going to poke holes in it.  I think part of why I didn't get up-in-arms about the aspects of her suggestions that differed from my own ideals is that I recognized from the beginning that she was writing from a very different place than me.  She's wealthy, she has in-home help, she works in a highly male-dominated field--none of these things apply to me, but I made it a point to look at her opinions through that lens and adjust accordingly.

As with any advice-based nonfiction, I suppose the key here is to read Lean In and find the points that work well for you.  Sandberg is not saying any woman is making bad choices--what she IS doing is helping women make better decisions, IF they are the decisions that keep them in the workforce.  That is her bias, and I don't think that's necessarily a negative.  While this book may not exactly empower the stay-at-home moms of the world, it will certainly help the working women out there feel stronger in the workplace, and it will assist any woman who is struggling with what to do about her work situation after she starts a family.  No advice book is going to apply to everyone--that's not a bad thing, and it's certainly the reality for Lean In.

Okay readers, who's read Lean In?  What did you think?  Did your personal work/family situation impact your perspective on what Sandberg had to say?  Have you put any of her advice into practice?  Did you feel that the controversy surrounding its publication was warranted, or overdone?


  1. Great review! I loved this book. Of course, I am a woman in a male dominated field, I probably don't even want to have children, and I feel very passionately about my career. That means a lot of her advice was directly applicable to me.

    I think all of the controversy is just silly. I was incredibly impressed by how careful the author was to never imply that choosing to continue your career is better than deciding to be a stay-at-home mom. I agree that she clearly has an agenda - she'd like to see more women in the workforce - but I think it's also clear that she wants this because she believe it would lead to women being treated more equally in the workplace, not because she thinks this is the right choice for all women to make. I also think it would be ideal if every woman had the options you had when deciding whether or not to keep their job, even if many of them would ultimately decide staying home with their children would be more fulfilling anyway, and I think that's part of her point as well.

    In terms of applying her advice, I'm trying to be less scared of taking on things I feel unqualified for. I don't know if it's because I'm at Cornell now and everyone else is just so smart or my class in which I'm the only non statistics major or what, but I've been struggling with confidence at work far more this year than I ever have in the past. I also work in a position where I'm frequently asked to do things that are new to me or even new to the field, so fear of failing at new things can be debilitating. Actually, I haven't been working on this specifically with her advice in mind, but your article makes me want to go back and read that bit :)

    Thanks for putting together such a thoughtful review!

    1. I agree that the controversy was silly. It forced me to really go into the book with an open mind, and when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. And yes, I know I am very lucky to have the options I did when I returned to work--that is definitely NOT the norm, and I think definitely something that would change if women had better leadership positions, especially in bigger organizations.

      I'm so glad that she has motivated you to be more confident! I thought that was some of her best advice...the things about sitting at the table, keeping your hand raised, etc. They sound simple, but when I think about how I used to act in meetings, I know I could probably benefit from that advice too.

  2. I will be honest when I saw that you wanted to read this book as a new mom fresh off the out of the home workforce I wanted to scream NOOOOOOOO and I thought you were a bit of a crazypants for doing it. I am pretty impressed by this review and have been intrigued to read it but wondered if I would feel judged or not good enough reading this book. Thanks for reviewing this book and I have put it back on the list of reads! Thanks!

    1. You should totally read it!! I think it would give you a lot to think about, and it is really not as judgy as the media made it out to be. I know I was crazy to jump into it at this point in my "career", but I couldn't resist. :) And the fact that I still had a pretty positive reaction to it is a testament to how well-rounded it is.

    2. Yea seems like a great book and that its just one perspective from one woman to another. Great review!

  3. Impressive review! I've heard mixed reviews about Sandberg and her book. Thanks for bringing things into perspective. Love that you're a new SAH mom. The world needs more moms like you.

    1. Thanks! It's definitely a tough job, but I do love it. :)

  4. I've been umming and ahhhing about reading this one, and as I still haven't I skipped through a little of your review just so I didn't influence myself either way. I actually like those personal perspective books on women in business as it doesn't push it out as refuted fact and you can take what you want from it. I think I may have to put this on the to-read list after all...

    1. I think the media reaction is the only thing that made it seem like she was speaking as "fact" actuality, it's not written that way, and that makes it much easier to take what you want from it.

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