When my mom gave me Lean In as a birthday present, I have to admit, I was a little nonplussed. Lean In was supposed to be for women in the upper echelons of the corporate world who struggled to balance work and family life; how much relevance would it have to a twenty-something creative freelancer with absolutely no interest in either a corner office or the ‘mommy track’?
A lot, to my pleasant surprise.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Sheryl Sandberg, she is the COO of Facebook, and her 2010 TED talk, ‘Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,’ about how women unintentionally hold themselves back at the table, and what they can do to change that, is the basis of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.
Although Sandberg does touch on the endemic institutionalised sexism and discrimination faced by women- a running theme through the book is the Heidi/Howard study, a 2003 Columbia showed that people’s impressions of two entrepreneurs with the exact same qualifications and personal characteristics varied vastly depending on whether they were told that the entrepreneur was male or female- she focuses mostly on the internal barriers holding women back.
Some of the sections, although excellent advice (Make Your Partner A Real Partner, about splitting childcare responsibilities, and The Myth Of Having It All, about the dangerous, damaging quest to be a perfect mother and a perfect worker) weren’t really relevant to me, but there were two that really resonated- Your Career is a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder, and Are You My Mentor. Sandberg’s advice about there not being one way to the top, and about mentoring and both asking older, senior people for advice and helping others out is worth the price of the book, in my opinion.
The real value of the book, though, is in the later pages. In one of the strongest sections of the book, she places the burden of achieving equality on the shoulders of both sexes, pointing out that both men and women have an interest in breaking strict gender roles and barriers, both in the workplace and the home. After all, men should no more be penalised for wanting to sit at the kitchen table than women for wanting the corner office.
Lean In is not without its flaws- for one thing- and Sandberg makes this clear in the opening chapters- it is targeted to educated professional women with some amount of privilege, and does not really speak to the needs of working-class women. Second, I wasn’t a fan of the random India-based statistics, since the issues affecting Indian women do not always match those faced by their Western counterparts. Perhaps Sandberg thought to give her book an international flavour, but she would have been better served by omitting it completely.
Finally… those of you expecting Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead to be another Second Sex or Feminine Mystique will be disappointed; it is by no means a feminist manifesto, although Sandberg herself claims the title. What it is is a smart, solid business book that should be read by everyone.