LEAN IN: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg. Knopf, 2013, 240 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)
Sheryl Sandberg, 43, chief operating officer of Facebook, is also the first and only woman to sit on its board. She has held senior positions at Google, the U.S. Treasury and the World Bank. She graduated from Harvard with accolades, earns millions of dollars, is wife to David, who does his 50 percent share of domestic duties, and mother of two children, aged 5 and 7, who apparently rarely see her but that’s OK, because a therapist said so.
She is clearly smart, so it’s a mystery how Sandberg is so short on common sense and has fallen for the oldest trick in the book. In “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” Sandberg shows very little awareness of herself or the ridiculous nature of the system that she so doggedly and determinedly embraces.
Sandberg’s book has generated controversy in the U.S. Critics such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, the academic and former high flyer in the Obama administration who wrote an excoriating article in the Atlantic last year about why she couldn’t “have it all” (as if anyone on this planet does), says Sandberg is too rich to pontificate to ordinary women. Wealth isn’t Sandberg’s problem. She says she has always seen herself as leading a social movement. She has set up a not-for-profit Lean In foundation for women to link up in “Lean In circles” and follow her instructions in the cause of self-advancement.
Joining a union might prove infinitely more fun and, for women, has the greater potential for a change that benefits not just themselves but their sons and daughters and grandchildren, too.
Sandberg, according to Time magazine, is on “a mission to reboot feminism.” No she isn’t. What she is, is a handmaiden of a process that, since the 1960s, has been intent on customizing feminism and turning it into a servant of the marketplace. Hence women’s alleged advancement is now marked by pole dancing, Botox and anti-aging cream for the under-30s, all packaged as “liberation-lite”; feminism with the nerve extracted.
More than 40 years ago, when a handful of us decided to set up a women’s liberation group in Northampton and were unable to agree on exactly how we would storm the ramparts of male oppression and under what banner (socialist-feminist? Marxist-feminist? Separatist-feminist required the sacrifice of a couple of spouses, so that was ruled out early), what we did agree upon is that feminism, for all its contradictions and confusions, is not about “adding in” women’s rights. Instead, it has the modest aim of transforming society for the sake of women and men.
Sandberg, in contrast, is interested in telling women to pull themselves together or they’ll never join the alpha males’ club and the 1 percent — except as arm candy. It’s a message some may want to hear, but it’s conservative and neoliberal and doesn’t even pass as feminist. “Lean in” is a clunky, self-conscious phrase. It puts you off balance, not least because by the time you reach the lengthy acknowledgments at the end of the book and discover that Sheryl has a “writing partner,” Nell Scovell, it has already become plain that Sandberg is not a woman who understands what it means to stand shoulder to shoulder with her sisters or even to share a byline.
Sandberg’s thesis is simple. She acknowledges there are difficulties in society. She illustrates this by a brief run-through of some of the numerous areas in the U.S., replicated in the U.K., in which the women who make up half the population in both countries are next to invisible in every corner of public life. They are often employed on shockingly low pay, working a double shift taking on all domestic duties, too. However, the bulk of Sandberg’s book does not focus on the problems for women, but the problem of women.
In generalizations sufficient to fill the Grand Canyon, according to Sandberg, women lack confidence, don’t speak up enough, refuse to sit “at the table” (with the big boys) and don’t even demand that their partners do their fair share. “[Women] are pulling back when they ought to be leaning in.” They even avoid some careers in preparation for the day they may have children. The key to success, as defined by Sandberg, is not to change or even challenge the system, but to mimic those who have gone before, i.e., men. She quotes a 2012 McKinsey survey showing that while 36 percent of male employees aspire to be top executives, that desire applies to only 18 percent of women. All will be well, according to Sandberg, if individual women only learn “to raise their hands,” “toot their own horn,” “think personally … substitute we for I,” “fake it till you feel it” and become pushy in the workplace just like (some) men.
What Sandberg advocates is that “we can reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution.” Yes, that old red herring.
Well, internalizing the revolution is very popular with those in power. It’s self-blame by any other name. What internalizing does is deaden the collective muscle that, throughout history, has proved to be the only genuine igniter of change. Women live in fear, Sandberg writes, not of others but of not being liked, receiving negative attention and the threat of failure. Of course, some women face these fears, and some women don’t (and others are too busy fighting to survive), but what would help is a system that works with the grain of their lives, not against it.
What would help is an acceleration in the time when women become a critical mass throughout organizations, not just at the bottom. What would make a real difference is when “women’s issues” are recognized as issues that concern both men and women since they are most often rooted in the needs of children.
Sandberg also has another locus for social change. “This revolution will happen one family at a time,” she writes. Bunkum. The past 40 years indicate that women and men, collectively campaigning for affordable, high-quality childcare, a living wage, flexible working, parental and part-time workers’ rights, have done more for the family than any prolonged discussion among couples as to whose turn it is to scrub the bath.
“Lean In” is a manual of depoliticization that reduces important issues, such as how to work and play and rear families as decent, self-respecting, mutually supportive human beings, to a set of personal problems that a bit more gumption will overcome. Or not. Sandberg is nothing if not contradictory. First, she advocates “drawing a line” and going home at 5:30 p.m., then announces she is available to Facebook 24/7 and rises to attend to her emails at 5 a.m. What level of crankiness exists in the Sandberg home?
“Lean In” purports to be about some bright new dawn with Amazonian alpha females doing it better than the boys. On the contrary, its ethos is desperately old-fashioned. Time magazine bills Sandberg as “copilot of the biggest network of humans that the world has ever seen.” That’s scary. Facebook has more than 1 billion members, more than half of whom are female. Of course, she’s good at what she does and she gets things done. In 2007, Facebook had 50 million users and $150 million in revenue. Recently, it reported revenue of $1.59 billion in its first quarter alone, in spite of sluggish results last year. Yet its famed “cutting edge” is really quite blunt.
If Sandberg had read “Future Work” by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, for instance, she would see numerous examples of how productivity goes up once technology and flexibility and trust in employees are successfully combined so that people can work from home in hours that suit them — even part-time! — and still climb the ladder.
Maitland and Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, in “Why Women Mean Business,” demonstrate how women’s varied traits and characteristics have themselves a value to businesses without mutation into mini-males.
Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe has researched assiduously for years the different styles of leadership that women successfully bring to organizations. And then there are Susan Cain’s arguments in “Quiet” about the power of the introvert and how, counter to Sandberg’s view, the less pushy male (Barack Obama?) and female have a great deal to offer, too. The key is surely learning how to bring out the best in people, not focusing on how unlike me (the male boss) they are.
Cordelia Fine, in “A Mind of Its Own,” explains how the brain has a multitude of strategies to keep our egos plump and self-satisfied. Sandberg’s ego is exceedingly plump. The book is full of little strokes, such as mentioning that her family gets a lift in the private jet of eBay’s chief executive and how wonderfully well her 20-minute TED talk was received. But then again, she’s only doing what she spends 240 pages advocating. The woman is very definitely leaning in. But as far as her values are concerned, she’s leaning into a void.