Lean In

by Sheryl Sandberg & Nell Scovell

Cover image

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright: March 2013
ISBN: 0-385-34994-7
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 217

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Lean In is normally listed as written only by Sheryl Sandberg, which is also what's on the dust jacket, but the inside cover says "with Nell Scovell." Given what that normally means for celebrity books, supported by comments in the acknowledgments, I'm listing it as co-written by Scovell. However, much of the book is written in the first person and is clearly meant to be Sandberg's voice, so I will mostly refer to Sandberg as the author for the rest of the review.

I was unfair to this book.

Lean In made quite a splash when it first came out, since the named author is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, a former vice president of Google, and one of the most prominent female executives in the business world. The subtitle is Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and the normal Internet summary was that it focused on how women could change their behavior to be more effective and successful in the business world. Throw in some ridiculous review hyperbole (one New York Times writer compared it to The Feminine Mystique, which is a bit like the comparison of every extruded fantasy product with The Lord of the Rings) and I was ready to hate this book. It's work advice from someone in a very privileged position, and it seemed to have a distinct whiff of victim-blaming.

It's obvious, however, from the first few pages that Sandberg was very aware of this trap and had no intent of falling into it. This is hard: giving practical advice to women on how to navigate a sexist culture runs a severe risk of victim-blaming even with the best of intentions, particularly since part of the sexism of the culture is a pervasive impression that women aren't doing enough. But I think Lean In handles that about as well as one could while still writing a book focused on practical advice rather than revolutionary change. Sandberg is clear that many things women can do to help their careers shouldn't be necessary, and she takes some time, in each section, to talk about the shape of any structural unfairness that she's seen. What advice she offers here is clearly in the spirit of how to navigate a system that is unfair and unequal, but which can be navigated and can be made more fair by more women participating.

This is a very practical book, with more in common with business self-help books than with feminist critiques. It's also a narrowly targeted book, not that you'd guess this from the number of copies it's sold and the sort of publicity it got. Lean In is advice to female executives about how to navigate the top levels of US business culture, with a strong eye for issues of feminism, gender-based double standards, and potential traps of self-sabotage. It offers a blend of encouragement, practical tips, and some forthright analysis that tries to bring to the surface internalized sexism and perceived barriers and limitations for female executives so that they can be addressed and hopefully overcome. It's not in any way a revolutionary book, either with respect to business culture or with respect to gender roles; rather, it's an open acknowledgment of a whole bunch of problems combined with practical advice for how to work around those problems until they can be solved. For the most part, it doesn't attempt to address how to solve the problems.

There is nothing wrong with that as a focus for a book. Lean In has attracted a fair bit of criticism in some circles, but, after reading the book, I think a lot of that criticism is predicated on assuming different goals than this book actually has. Contrary to various glowing reviews, Lean In is not a book that's going to change the world; rather, it's a book that might help a narrow band of the population in a specific job and career path navigate problems of sexism and gender expectations and be more effective. Read in that light, it struck me as honest, open, considered, and well aware of its own limitations. Sandberg says repeatedly that many of the options she discusses simply aren't available to most women, and that women may not be in a position to be able to make the decisions she made. She's quite forthright about the limitations of her own experience and the limitations of the advice that she offers, and I think deserves full points for honesty.

Similarly, when it comes to business culture, Lean In is not about changing that culture for the better. It's about navigating that culture as it exists. Here, I think Sandberg is less aware of the limitations of this perspective; there is far less acknowledgment in Lean In that executive culture may be inherently toxic as there is of the limitations that women face in business. But while Sandberg has an obvious blind spot, this is not a paean to overwork. It has some excellent advice about work-life balance, including the need to put strict limits on the amount of time one spends in the office and the necessity for someone to pick up substantial burdens in the home if one of the members of a household is going to pursue a business executive job.

I was worried, going in, that Lean In would excuse, justify, or idealize the culture of exploitation so common with salaried jobs in the United States, but it really doesn't. As with feminism, it doesn't pick any deep fights, and those with a "kill it with fire" gut reaction towards US executive culture (such as myself) will find the bland acceptance of it irritating, but this is more of an issue with reader expectations than with the book. One should not expect a highway map to point out that trains are more efficient.

So, I'm willing to stand up for Lean In to a degree. This is not a bad book. It's very readable, parts are quite interesting, and some of Sandberg's observations about the intersection of gender expectations and executive culture were worth hearing. I learned some things from it. But I think one should read it in full awareness of its limitations. This is a book of practical advice that will only be of direct use to 10% of the population, and which could be generalized with some effort to maybe 25%. It has little to say to women who are not in white-collar, professional jobs, and its applicability to women who aren't aiming for executive careers is a bit hazy. It's the kind of book that's full of anecdotes about how Sandberg got parking spots reserved for pregnant women at Google by talking to the founders about it, or about how to negotiate salary when offered an executive position, which are vaguely interesting but of dubious practical benefit to people who aren't offered jobs where salary and benefit negotiation is available. This isn't the fault of the book, but at times it is rather stunning how different (and how much more tractable) the world looks to someone with the wealth and personal connections that Sandberg has. (To her credit, Sandberg does seem to be aware of this and does acknowledge it.)

If you are a female executive, or a male executive interested in developing your empathy and understanding of how institutional sexism affects your colleagues, I suspect Lean In would be quite helpful. If you're not, I think it's mostly a curiosity. But it's also well-written, well-organized, probably available in most libraries in the United States, and provides anecdotal data to help build a more complete picture of the concerns and experiences of female executives. Unless you're in the specific target audience, I'm not sure I'd recommend going out of your way to find it, but it's probably worth reading if it falls into your lap.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-10-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21