Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: A Review

Business Sense journalist, Isabelle Macintyre, provides a critique on the book that’s taken the business world by storm.

130308101143-sheryl-sandberg-lean-in-book-cover-240xaSheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook, all-round over-achiever – is the latest person to address the subject of women in power.

It’s an issue that still manages to provoke controversy. And while Lean In has received considerable praise from leading figures in politics and business, the acclaim has been countered by some censure.

Most glaring, at least from an SME perspective, is the concern that Sandberg is in too much of a bubble to have anything relatable to offer. Certainly, when considering her personal wealth of $500 million, and the fact that Fortunes magazine recently ranked her as more influential than Michelle Obama, such a position is hard to challenge. But for a busy SME owner, is there anything of value to be gained here?

Lean In is an enjoyable and interesting light read, and its author is likeable and engaging. I can certainly see why it has quickly become a bestseller. Sandberg’s chief talent (among many others) is her magnificent ability to inspire and motivate those she encounters, and given her professional success, one couldn’t ask for a better coach.

For this reason, the book is arguably most relevant to women starting businesses, going it alone or out in their careers. For women with the optimism of youth, she does come up with some good tips, for instance, the importance of asking for a promotion, instead of waiting to have one offered. Sandberg urges women to believe that they can become leaders in their field and still have children, and in this respect, it is a welcome alternative to the cautionary tales of career women ‘missing the boat’, which continually surface in the press; stories that provide a stark warning and can prompt women to step back at work.

Having said that, given the level of debate this book has triggered, I was surprised to find it as cautious and overly-PC as it was. Far from groundbreaking, Lean In rests entirely on the existing discourse, and reminds us of what we already know. Nevertheless, given that much of this information consists of things we either take for granted, or display apathy towards, the book does serve some purpose here. Furthermore, the copious amounts of data and research she presents to substantiate her points, give us more than enough to ponder over, and also make the book as worthy as any that have come before it. Besides, there is no pretense in this respect; Sandberg explains in her introduction that she can offer no solutions, but merely present us with facts about the existing status quo. Lean In thus outlines the reality of the situation in layman’s terms. This is all completely acceptable. One doesn’t expect each and every book to bring pioneering discoveries to the table, but what I find hard to fathom, is the level of controversy the book has thus generated. The issues being presented are of course enough to instigate discussion, but Sandberg is simply their messenger; don’t shoot her.

Lean In is not an attempt to examine the different choices open to women, it is about those who have chosen the career path, and to those women, Sandberg encourages ‘sitting at the table, and not ‘leaving’ before absolutely vital. Such women should totally forget about motherhood until the actual birth is imminent, instead of regarding the prospect of it as a reason to sit back. The book aims to prove to those who strive for professional success in its highest form that it is possible to combine this with a family, although the outcome will not be perfect. Nothing ever is. She quashes the dangerous notion of ‘having it all’, and reminds us that this is a myth for working and fulltime mothers alike; both have to forfeit something for the sake of something else; both are left feeling resentful in one way or another, and both are filled with the feeling that their personal choices are being judged by others.

Much of the criticism that Sandberg has received from fulltime-mothers, who argue that the author has belittled their role, seems unwarranted then. She could have ignored their position entirely – given that her topic of choice is female leadership in the workplace – but instead she declares her genuine respect for the route they have taken. She reminds us that the Women’s Movement is about freedom of choice, clearly stating: ‘Not all women want careers. Not all women want children. Not all women want both.’ Never once does she advocate that all women should share the same objectives.

Sandberg has also received criticism from the opposite end of the spectrum – from those who feel that by asking women to lean in, she is pardoning our institutions, and blaming women for their own misfortune. The fact remains, we will never inhabit a perfect society – the concept of Utopia is at odds with the human condition – but in no way does Sandberg advocate that we sit back and accept the flaws in our system. While she recognises that we are socially conditioned from the cradle, on account of our gender, we should not expect society to change for our benefit; social gains are not just handed out, but must be seized.

The author’s comparative analyses of male and female behaviours, and the nature versus nurture issue, are both particularly engaging. While Sandberg represents the contemporary take on feminism, which differs greatly from the man-hating, bra-burning variety of her predecessors, her examination of societal expectation for the sexes goes to show that in order for women to lead in the work place, they must proactively fight against traditional stereotypes. Sandberg argues that the underrepresentation of women in positions of power is largely down to self-sabotage, preemptive retreat, and because they do not demonstrate their ambition for fear of being disliked. She substantiates her claims with countless examples whereby women put themselves down, or undermine their own achievements, in direct contrast to how men act in a similar situation.

Although the topic has been watered-down by Sandberg’s apparent reluctance to offend, the fact that the book has still ignited considerable debate proves that women cannot be defined by gender alone. Aspirations vary wildly within the female sex. We can look at anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology, and any other ‘-ology’ you care to add, for explanations of why women behave a particular way, or aim for certain things, but this will never be a black and white issue. Some women are maternal and regard motherhood as their ultimate objective; others have little interest in babies and instead aspire to the professional heights of Sandberg. Then there are those that seek a balance. One thing that is certain though, is that it is impossible for women to juggle an extremely high-powered career and a successful family life, without significant money at hand. Perhaps Sandberg’s degree of wealth isn’t necessary for this, but there needs to be enough in the pot for women to lean in to their careers whilst also child-rearing.

This was the issue that united critics from both sides of the table, and saw to considerable charges being laid at Sandberg’s door. Many even doubted the book’s relevance to the average working woman as a result. So, given Sandberg’s immense wealth, what does she really know about the daily struggle of raising children when both parents work outside the home? Opponents have argued that there are few who can afford the level of support it takes to maintain a family life that does not crumble in the absence of parents. However, with professional leadership generally comes financial reward, so those that manage to attain it should find themselves with fewer fiscal worries. Furthermore, isn’t that the whole principle of advice giving? – Surely it must come from a source people would aspire to.

And when all is said and done, the proof is in the pudding. Sandberg is a wife and mother, with a CV few could rival, and while not all women have chosen, or indeed, would wish to choose her choices, for those that have and do, she is the perfect coach.

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