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Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ urges women to change the world

By Emily Simon


First things first: there are no “Mommy Wars.” Really. There never have been any.

Working moms and stay-at-home moms aren’t teams fighting over the Stanley Cup. Feminists and women with more “traditional” values do not routinely trip one another in the supermarket.

Also, Betty and Veronica weren’t really competing for Archie, and Alexis and Krystle didn’t really mud-wrestle in Bob Mackie shoulder pads. None of this happened. It’s fiction. It’s falsely heightened conflict, presented for maximum dramatic effect. Aliens didn’t really blow up the White House either.

Most of us are able to divorce fiction from fact, so before discussing “Lean In” – Sheryl Sandberg’s monster best-seller addressing the dearth of women in leadership in America – let’s all take a deep breath, put on our big-girl pants, and shake off the machine-created “fog of war” for a second, shall we?

Pardon me … do I sound a little defensive? I’m sorry. You see, apparently all the world loves a catfight. The complexities of women’s lives are routinely, relentlessly, rendered into black and white, and women presented with oversimplified, overgeneralized, prefab categories we’re supposed to choose between. The trend goes so far back that it’s hard to figure out where it began.

And the “Mommy War” stuff is not just polarizing but intentionally destabilizing, poking many women in their most exposed soft spots. Headlines like “Are You Mom Enough?” (Time Magazine, May 21, 2012) direct people into conflict around the most personal issues in their lives. No one wants to get the kids to school, swing by the market, then pass a newsstand (or open her browser) to find herself facing a “fresh take” on questions like: Am I doing right by my kids? My spouse? Myself? Should I have done (x)? Will my child suffer because I didn’t do (y)?

Or, conversely, find herself exclaiming: I did (x), why doesn’t everyone else? America would be in better shape if women just did (y)! In the old days, when everyone did (z), everything was better and we didn’t have these problems!

In the end, everyone with an opinion is forcibly rendered into one of two categories: anxiously defensive, or angrily smug. And THAT is a problem: a national, cultural problem.

Sheryl Sandberg, billionaire, working mom, COO of Facebook, and professional problem solver, is on the case. She not only believes women should work, but that we should achieve – succeed, even! And she wants to help us overcome internalized sexism so that we can. She encourages American women to clear the hurdle of “work-life balance” so we can “lean in” at the conference table and help change the world.

Unfortunately, the very existence of Sandberg’s book has provoked a whole new round of “False Dichotomy Tic-Tac-Toe.” The “easy for HER to say” backlash she faced immediately was predictable (Sandberg is privileged in every conceivable category but gender). But in addition, she’s been snidely excoriated by Maureen Dowd, impatiently countered by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and calmly defended by Gloria Steinem (“only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice”). She’s been compared and contrasted to Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! and fellow privileged working mother (Mayer does not identify as feminist, while Sandberg does). And most of this happened before her book was even published.

Sandberg certainly invited the attention; “Lean In” was offered – marketed, if you will – as a manifesto, a shot hopefully heard round the world, prodding a waiting army into motion and activism. It was – predictably and hilariously – promoted within an inch of its life on Facebook. It was launched in New York at a party thrown by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She didn’t just write a book, she tried to start a movement. And she may well have. Unfortunately, “Lean In” is no “I Have a Dream.” It’s more like “I Have a PowerPoint Presentation.”

Oh, the book? The actual contents of it? The words in it? THAT’s what you’re interested in? OK, that’s easy: it’s good. It’s strong. It’s not necessarily revolutionary or ground-breaking as a piece of writing, but it’s very clear and very helpful and taken as a whole it’s powerful. The sentences are not elegantly wrought, but they’re well researched and thought out, and the personal experience Sandberg shares has intrinsic value. She has achieved what she is encouraging others to attempt.

It’s just that “Lean In” feels a little like a speech at a shareholders’ meeting. It’s mostly structured like one: anecdote, thesis, fact, anecdote, fact, summary. Sandberg is a corporate person, and her mild, endlessly reasonable voice is calibrated to appeal to women who desire the type of success Sandberg has, in the type of environment she occupies.

“Lean In” is also more comprehensive than many critics would have you believe. She lays out the facts about institutional sexism in a way that will resonate with women across a broad spectrum. She addresses inequality in the home, and brings men into the conversation. She outlines the unique challenges women face in modern America in a voice palatable to those who are loath to identify as “feminist.” And most importantly, she has actually reached those people. They’re apparently reading this book in droves.

“Lean In” is certainly a little self-help-y. Not New-Age, Naomi-Wolf’s “Vagina”-style self-help-y, but more “Hang In There” cat-poster self-help-y. Oprah self-help-y.

It’s also a little simplistic at times, which can make Sandberg come off as condescending. She’s clearly trying very hard to make her book accessible to the women who she feels will benefit most from it, which leads to chunks like this:

“There is a saying ‘think globally, act locally.’ When negotiating, ‘think personally, act communally.’ I have advised many women to preface negotiations by explaining that they know women often get paid less than men so they are going to negotiate rather than accept the original offer.”

At times, I couldn’t help fantasizing about reading this same book, only written by that Great Superheroine-cum-Golem of American Feminism, Hillary Clinton. THAT would be revolutionary. But Sandberg, while providing chum for professional critics, may have better luck with those for whom her message is intended: working women.

It is occasionally wince-inducing that Sandberg is a privileged woman giving somewhat patronizing advice to those less fortunate or less sophisticated than she. She strains at times to prove that she “identifies” with the struggles she describes. But for heaven’s sake … the advice she gives isn’t “let them eat cake”. It’s “planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them.”

“Lean In” is full of Sandberg’s incredibly specific opinions, but she’s not arrogant enough to present them unsupported. As a corporate deal-maker, she knows that she has to back up her offers, and she does – with both personalizing anecdotes (“I would rather plan a Dora the Explorer party than pay an insurance bill, and since Dave feels the exact opposite, this arrangement works for us”) and politicizing facts (identical resumes are judged differently with a female name attached than they are with a male’s).

Yes, “Lean In” is Oprah-y at times, but Oprah arguably sold more books, to more different kinds of women, than anyone in America ever has.

Perhaps what Sandberg learned at Facebook is the power of democracy. Facebook – originally designed for students at Harvard – opened itself up to the general public and almost immediately changed the workings of American social life. As a member of an elite trying to bring social tools to a larger audience, maybe Sandberg hopes “Lean In” will represent the next big change in how we talk to each other … and if it happens to be profitable for her, can we blame her?

Lean In: Women, Work

and the Will to Lead

By Sheryl Sandberg


228 pages, $24.95

Emily Simon is a freelance writer living in California.