Review: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

This is my review of Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, Lean In. I tried to place various incarnations of it elsewhere, but by the time I pitched them most publications were Sandberg’ed out. I couldn’t get my hands on advance galleys of the book and had to wait until it was published to get a copy. Thus, I am posting my review here. I do have some things to say about the book which I haven’t heard elsewhere.

The bottom line is that while, for me, ultimately it adds up to a net plus, I feel considerable ambivalence about this book. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more the ambivalence it stirred up. I think this book has done a creditable job at giving empowering, female-specific career advice, and igniting a broad conversation about our stalled feminist revolution. But it’s awful when it comes to realistically anchoring that advice in the context of our radically altered, high-unemployment economy.

Moving on to specifics: Sandberg is good about discussing the chicken/egg question of internal and external barriers to women’s leadership — the issue that those external barriers need to fall down, but that they won’t unless individual women start pushing them. Like any good lefty, I strongly believe that structural issues are a far more significant impediment to women’s progress than are individual ones, and that collective action is more powerful than individual effort. That said, you can’t get around the fact that individual behavior also plays a role, and that in order to gain more economic power, women must also focus attention on that. While Sandberg does support policy solutions like workplace flexibility, child care, etc., her book is about the individual stuff. I will pay her the respect of reviewing the book she actually wrote by focusing what I think she gets right — and wrong — about the individual-level issues. The collective, structural issues will have to wait for another time.

The first thing feminists approaching this book should realize is that, as a perusal of her list of all-time favorite books will confirm, Sandberg is no intellectual, and she is unfamiliar with academic feminism. Her book is not feminist theory or feminist polemic. She’s a corporate tycoon, and this is a business book — a kind of memoir/advice book hybrid. It should be read in that spirit.

The whole genre of business books and trendy management “theory” (I had to read some of this twaddle for my MPA program, God help me) usually makes my eyes roll so far to the back of my head they fall out and hit the floor. So in that context, to the extent I liked this book, I was surprised. What’s such a game-changer is to see one of these books written by an out-and-proud feminist, a woman who says things like, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. This would be a better world” — and really seems to mean it.

Sandberg is a shrewd observer of social dynamics and office politics — indeed, this may be her genius, and the key to her success. She’s onto the myriad small, almost invisible ways women fail to show up for themselves, when it counts, on the job. She’s not pulling this stuff out of thin air, either; the book is solidly researched. She gives women advice, including how to maximize their chances for advancement, how to negotiate, how to deal with criticism, how to balance a career and home life, and more.

Identifying women’s problematic behaviors is helpful — there are moments reading this book when my head snapped back and I said to myself, “Oh, so that’s what it is!” Sandberg is an engaging story-teller and she deploys personal anecdote to judicious effect. When you see that gender-specific confidence problems etc. plague even her, you start to realize how significant these problems are for women as a class. Which is why, when she gives you the tools to attack these problems, it can feel powerful.

Much of her advice is sound, so far as it goes. Personally, I’ve started applying it and have found it helpful. I suffer from some of the problems she identifies, and I know I’m not alone. Even in our allegedly post-feminist world, there are millions more like me, and Sandberg gives us permission to see ourselves and our careers in a different light and start behaving more forcefully and purposefully. Women like me will get some benefit from this book.

In fact, I think parts of this book would be helpful to virtually every professional woman navigating the workplace. But . . . and here comes the time for my quite serious reservations about the book.

Although, as I noted previously, Sandberg does advocate some systemic changes, she only notes them in passing here. Fair enough — that is not her subject. The topic at hand is how an individual woman can best manage her career to maximize her chances of success, given the system we have. Okay.

More problematic is the fact that Sandberg’s advice is also pitched so relentlessly at straight, presumably white, mostly college-educated women who are or want to be partnered and have children. While clearly that amounts to a huge swathe of American women, would it have killed her to include some sections on how her advice might differentially apply to women of color, single moms, older women, or the nonstraight? The book is written for middle class professionals, so it’s not surprising that it offers little for working class women. But Sandberg’s failure to recognize and address the diverse needs and interests her female professional readership is a serious limitation of her book.

So far as the book’s readability goes, it begins to flag notably in the second half. I’ll put it this way: you know how rap artists tend to be far more compelling early in their careers, when their songs are about life in the ‘hood and busting a cap in someone’s ass, rather than later, when it’s all about flashing the bling and swigging the Cristal? This book is kind of like that. Sandberg is infinitely more interesting and relatable confiding about her ill-advised first marriage or how she fought off bouts of morning sickness during an important client meeting than she is when she’s regaling us with yet anecdote about one of her fab billionaire and/or CEO buddies.

And boy, does she name-drop like crazy: Oprah, Arianna, Gloria, Jane . . . The stories of the high-flying escapades of Sandberg and her posse begin to mount: there was that time when she was flying on the private jet belonging to the founder of Ebay. Then there’s the buddy of hers who tests the worthiness of new boyfriends by asking if they’re willing to fly off to Sao Paolo at a moment’s notice — gee, why didn’t I think of that? We hear, ad nauseum, about the wonderfulness of (her mentor) Larry Summers. Also, too, of the infinite wisdom of Robert Rubin (whom she also worked for). Kill me now, please.

And here we come to the books most glaring flaw. Sandberg floats in such a bubble of extreme privilege that we hear not a peep about the economic catastrophe that has befallen American workers over the past half decade. This is a book about career management; surely Sandberg must have something to say about how women should navigate their careers in an era of high, prolonged — and perhaps permanent? — unemployment rates, increased economic instability, downsizing, and the like. We do, after all, live in an economy where nearly half of all recent college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

How should women who are unemployed go about looking for a new job, or transition to a new career? How should you deal with an unemployed partner? It’s not like millions of people aren’t facing these problems. At the very least, she could have tried to tackle such questions as: what should you do if your firm has downsized and you’re asked to take on extra work to pick up the slack? Given that the economy is so stagnant, how do you adapt to a job market that is more cut-throat competitive than ever?

Instead . . . crickets. Seriously, you’d think the last five years never even happened and we were still at the height of the 90s boom. Sandberg is a big advocate of taking risks with your career, but I don’t know — in this economy, something safe like, say, a teaching job with tenure or a government job with a nice pension plan sounds like a wiser decision than taking a flyer at a job that could be substantially more renumerative but also carries a far greater risk of failure and instability. But this is the kind of book where every risk pays off and no one, ever, has any bad luck — at least not a prolonged spell of it. (Chirpy optimism of this sort is, of course, mandatory for the business genre).

It’s downright eerie, the silence in the book about the radically altered economic climate that all workers are facing. Sandberg does mention once in passing that it took her a year to find a job in the tech sector, but that spell of unemployment didn’t appear to cause her any hardship. Her career was a glide path that just went up and up and up, and she doesn’t seem to realize that stable careers in corporate America are becoming vanishingly rare, at least for the 99%. None of her friends seem to have been affected by the Great Recession either, but perhaps that’s not surprising, given that they’re all one percenters. The Wall Streeters and CEOs and still partying like it’s 1999, so hey, that recession that wiped out two decades of wealth we all built up? Let’s just act like it never happened, m’kay?

It bears emphasizing that few people in the entire world bear more personal responsibility for the financial meltdown than Summers and Rubin, and that she never portrays them less than adoringly.

So, in the end, I’m ambivalent about this book. Much of her female-specific career advice I like very much. Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique, women’s careers are flatlining in mid-management, and American women’s labor force participation rates are beginning to decline relative to other industrialized countries. These developments are cause for alarm. Sandberg’s book shines a spotlight on them, and offers a partial solution. This is a significant accomplishment.

But Sandberg’s extreme privilege insulates her from the fact that careers today look very different than how they looked 25 years ago, when she started hers. Not only has she failed to examine her advice to reflect that fact, she doesn’t even seem to get that this might be an issue. Nor does she seem to realize that the nonstop name-dropping and tales of the high life risk becoming a huge turn-off to her audience base of middle-class readers — particularly in this brutal economy.

At times it’s a close call, but ultimately, I’m more heartened by this book than I am disturbed by it. Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism is not exactly my cup of tea, but feminism is a big tent; it contains multitudes. The first and second waves of feminism were started by elites, but eventually women’s suffrage and second wave women’s liberation became genuine mass movements. Betty Friedan was not at all pleased with the radical turn feminism took just a few years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique.

Though they’re no substitute for the power of a mass movement, a few well-positioned elites like Sandberg can leverage power for that movement in crucial ways: by providing financial support, by gaining media attention, by acting as role models, by helping to get a conversation started. Certainly, Sheryl Sandberg has done all those things. Hell’s bells, the woman is attempting to reanimate feminism from the dead parrot status it’s been in for lo these many years, and for that alone she deserves a round of applause.

In the Lean In groups that are being organized, women will start by sticking to Sandberg’s approved agenda. By once you get a group of women talking together, who knows what will come up. Anything can happen. That’s what make this — dare I say it? — a potentially exciting feminist moment.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee