‘Lean In’: Are women holding themselves back?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 31, 2013

“Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” by Sheryl Sandberg, with Nell Scovell, Alfred A. Knopf, 228 pp., $24.95 hardcover.

By Elizabeth Cook

If women earn 57 percent of the undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of the master’s degrees awarded in this country, why are so few in the top ranks of American business and politics?
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, lays out a powerful theory in her book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” heralded by some as a new feminist manifesto.
Sandberg says there is a leadership ambition gap, shaped by generations of stereotyping, traditional divisions of labor at home and subtle prejudices in the workplace.
Females may be dominating in education, she says. “But while compliant, raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace,” she writes. “Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself…” — actions many women lack the gumption and ambition to take.
So she poses a thought-provoking question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
Seemingly fearless herself, the Harvard-educated Sandberg could look down upon her less powerful sisters. Or she could merely step over them as she progresses up the corporate ladder (which she says is actually a jungle gym, by the way, with no direct route). Instead, she collects compelling data, apt anecdotes and her own insights in a very readable and affirming book — without an iota of bashing, whining or condescension.
Resent her if you want. But rare is the woman who would not recognize herself somewhere in Sandberg’s 11 chapters. We have chosen seats in the background at a meeting while others sat at the conference table. We have taken less demanding work paths to keep family life on an even keel. And, yes, a few of us have criticized the way our husbands do chores only to wonder why men seem so reluctant to do them.
Sandberg says women make countless decisions that either intentionally or unintentionally shape their careers. But do they (we) want Sandberg’s kind of achievement? Do all women define leadership and success the same way?
No, and she expresses respect for the argument that women can have different priorities and goals. Home and family may mean more to them than success in the workplace. She knows from her own experience with having two children that childbearing and rearing put specific demands on mothers. She does not pass judgment.
“Still,” she says, “in today’s world, where we no longer have to hunt in the wild for our food, our desire for leadership is largely a culturally created and reinforced trait. How individuals view what they can and should accomplish is in large part formed by our societal expectations.”
Audacious. That describes Sandberg’s modus operandi and her book, a fact that has put her on the cover of TIME magazine (“Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful”) and in the New York Times Review of Books (“A Titan’s How-To on Breaking the Glass Ceiling.”)
It’s all too easy for a jetsetter who can afford nannies to hypothesize about how women should live their lives, and Sandberg acknowledges her advantages. But the stories she shares from her own life show she can relate to women who were not born on the fast track. She too has had to deal with morning sickness, divvying up household responsibilities and feeling guilty when she sees other mothers who appear to spend more and better time with their children.
As she does on several topics, Sandberg puts aside emotion and pulls out scientific data, citing a study that found “children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently from those who were also cared for by others.”
But what we know intellectually can be overruled by emotions. “Guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers,” Sandberg says.
Insightful nuggets like that may give Sandberg the greatest credibility of all — or at least the greatest appeal — with women who will find themselves nodding and occasionally laughing out loud as they read her ideas.
She brings out the “f-word” — feminism — and confesses that she has always avoided the label. Like many professional women, she does not like being identified as Facebook’s “female chief operating officer” any more than someone would want to be known as the “female doctor” or the “female superintendent.” Successful people want to be known for their work, not their gender. Heaven forbid they bring up complaints about inequality in the workplace.
But in a chapter called, “Let’s Start Talking About It,” Sandberg urges women not to shy away from the subject.
“I made this my ‘thing’ because we need to disrupt the status quo,” says this woman who has done quite well within it. “Staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations of women who entered corporate America could do. … But this strategy is not paying off for women as a group. Instead, we need to speak out, identify the barriers that are holding women back and find solutions.”
That will require some leaning in, too. Sandberg says women can “reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution” — that is, by adjusting our own attitudes and expectations. Start with this question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Sheryl Sandberg’s speech at a TED conference can be found online at www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html. She has helped start a nonprofit foundation, LeanIn.org, to further explore issues raised in her book. And of course, there’s a Facebook page: www.facebook.com/leanincommunity.