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Sheryl Sandberg – Lean In

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Sit at the table. Don’t wait to be asked. Your parents might moan but your career will flourish.

Publisher: WH Allen (Random House)
Pages: 171
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-75354-162-3
First Published: 11th March 2013
Date Reviewed: 9th July 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

A mixture of memoir, research, and experience, Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, discusses what holds women back from having successful careers. Looking at how social expectations create barriers, she details what we can do to change the workplace to further equality. Drawing on her time as an intern, at Google, and, of course, at Facebook, Sandberg’s book is as much about personal experience as the experiences of others.

Lean In is a comparatively short book that, although it could have been longer as well as better edited, presents good evidence and is a fair motivator. Sandberg is honest from the beginning – this book isn’t of a particular genre and she is very aware that she is not perfect with gender herself. This contributes to the success of the book, even if it doesn’t quite heal the inconsistencies.

Sandberg makes it clear from the word ‘go’ that her word isn’t the be all and end all, that equality means having a choice (for example between being a stay-at-home mum and a working parent), and that whilst the book will likely resonate most with women, there is something for men, too.

These are promises she keeps. Partly due to her own status as a mother, she constantly considers points about child well-being, contact time, and the reasoning against leaving children to go on trips. This is a good aspect of the book and yet as it is obvious and understandable that she defends her own choices, inevitably Sandberg ends up unconsciously reinforcing why there is the social expectation to stay at home in the first place. This isn’t to say you’ll necessarily end the book thinking she’s a bad mother, but she does unfortunately bring into focus the very thing she didn’t want to. This sort of thing also happens with other unrelated accounts, such as when she says crying is good between employees but makes herself sound weak.

On the promise of choice, Sandberg never waivers. Her opinion is that if women want to work they should, if they want to look after their children they should, if they want to combine both they should. She also highlights the need for men to have a choice as well – in that a stay-at-home father is seen as a bad life style when it shouldn’t be. And she reminds you how people will ask a woman how she intends to change her life to accommodate her child, but a man is never asked.

As suggested above, the promise of making the book interesting for men is kept. This reviewer, as a woman, may be saying this from an ‘outsider’ perspective, but Sandberg spends much time speaking about the lack of paternity leave and about how men who wish for equality are not given support or credit.

What of the major aspects, then? Beyond choices and parenting, Sandberg discusses the fact (backed up by evidence) that the sole difference of gender on an otherwise identical profile will illicit different responses from study groups. She explains how we don’t even notice our own biases, how she doesn’t notice hers, and how research suggests that it’s people who say they are not biased who are actually the most subjective. She talks of how women are often the issue, not supporting each other, and how it’s unfortunate, even if understandable, that a woman’s view of another woman is considered most important – unfortunate because a woman will often be more negative of another woman than a man will be.

Sandberg looks at the differences in our perceptions of successful people. A strong successful man is liked, a strong successful woman is considered bossy. Likeability doesn’t match success. She discusses catch-22’s – a woman who helps a colleague is less likely to have the favour returned due to the stereotype of caring, a woman who doesn’t help will be penalised more than a man would be. And she debunks the old saying that people are different as they get older – “nothing has changed since high school; intelligence and success are not clear paths to popularity at any age”.

Perhaps surprisingly, whilst Sandberg hopes for change she says that sometimes stereotypes and little ideas must be bought into to gain success. She speaks of women assuming dominate poses, such as physically taking up more space, to aid the mentality of strength. The focus on faking it until you make it is, in the context of Sandberg’s main ‘lesson’, both understandable and a contradiction.

Unfortunately there are more of these contradictions in the book. One is the focus on women with children. Up until half-way through Sandberg’s advice and opinion is generalised and useful. This then stops suddenly. The initial reason is that there is a chapter that isn’t nearly as worthwhile as the rest and the book becomes very repetitive. But the second and more obvious reason is the exclusive focus on motherhood. There is very little in this book written specifically for women who have no desire to parent. This may fit Sandberg’s own position as a mother, but it renders the book inaccessible, creating a bit of a ‘them and us’ situation. There is a lot about women who are thinking of having children and women who want them someday, contrasted with one single story of a woman (who nevertheless wants children one day) speaking up for those burdened with extra hours so their colleagues can spend more time with their own families. Women with or who want children may indeed have a tougher time succeeding in their careers, but the premise of this book did not suggest such a level of positive discrimination. And to go back to Sandberg’s accidental reinforcement of the mother stereotype, much of what she says in the latter chapters only reminds the reader of why ‘we’ have discrimination.

Taking the positive discrimination further, the book is, perhaps obviously, inaccessible and irrelevant to those on lower incomes. Indeed Sandberg talks of wage gaps, single parent families, and how she happens to be lucky, but this doesn’t make the situation any better. If this was to be about helping women to succeed she needed to cover those not fortunate enough to have the money to afford university, to not have the wealthy and supportive parents, partners, social contacts, those who are stuck in dead-end jobs. As other reviewers have pointed out, Sandberg acknowledges the help of many many women in the creation of the book, but nowhere is there a mention of the women she employs to look after her house or children, excepting a single reference to a faceless woman she was jealous of for owning her, Sandberg’s, son’s affection.

This lack of accessibility is cemented by the name-dropping. Sandberg has worked at Google, Facebook, in countless privileged positions – and that is the point, the continual reminders of luck, money, and a nice but rare modern office culture will likely divide many readers from the text. If the target audience was high-income women then the book wasn’t particularly necessary in the first place, or at the very least Sandberg should not have brought in mentions of lower-income families.

And it’s a pity because as the book moves into its second half there is enough repetition that could have been replaced with a whole new chapter about how to get that first good job, and the book wouldn’t have had to have been any longer. Sandberg is in a position to have written this book, in so much as people will give her book deals without persuasion, but she displays a distinct lack of knowledge or at the very least has left such knowledge out, out of convenience.

But then given the contents of the acknowledgements, how much of this book did she actually write and how much is simply paraphrasing?

Sandberg’s book provides a lot to think about, and her honesty is refreshing. But it’s not perfect by any means and is full of contradictions and missing information. Read it, it’s worth it on the whole, but don’t expect many answers.

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July 31, 2013, 5:07 am

I thought it was a good conversation starter, but didn’t provide all the answers. In that respect, it was a bit frustrating and maybe just too ‘Oprah-ish’.


July 31, 2013, 8:02 pm

Great, thorough review- love your consideration of what worked and didn’t and what maybe got overlooked. The inconsistencies are interesting, and maybe make it a more honest reflection _
– I suspect many of us harbor complicated feelings about our work and home balance


August 1, 2013, 7:18 pm

Loved reading your review. I definitely want to read this–have been intrigued ever since I read the interview with her in Time magazine a few months back. The article highlighted more of the controversial aspects of the book, though your review shows there’s a lot more to it than that. As a mother with a master’s degree who is about to give up her career to be a stay-at-home mom, I want to see what she has to say…though I also recognize that I need to go into it not feeling like she is anti-SAHMs (which the Time article seemed to imply).

Literary Feline

August 6, 2013, 11:58 pm

Thank you for your thorough review, Charlie. Although this is not a book I have any interest in reading, it has garnered a lot of attention and controversy. As a result, I’ve been curious to know what those I know and trust have to say about it.

As a mother who works outside the home, I understand the difficulties of finding balance in time, energy and personal acceptance.

I respect and admire mothers are are able to stay at home with their children just as much as those who work, whether inside or outside of the home. I hate that women beat each other up over lifestyle choices. Each has its drawbacks as well as its advantages.

Anyway, great review, Charlie!



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