So I’m a bit late to it, but Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead has been on my reading list for a while. Thanks to the audio book version from my local library, 45 minute commutes daily and a long trip back to Michigan for a friend’s wedding, I finally managed to finish it. It was definitely well worth the read, but there are some legitimate critiques I have on the book that has become the working woman’s guidebook in the last few years.
First, let me warn you this post will be longer than my usual 500-ish word count, which I feel is justified based on the ubiquitous of the book and the complex subject matter it addresses. This tome touches on everything from gender inequality in the home to feminism to modern business practices, so it’s a big task to undertake.
Second, I am not the only one who takes issue with some things in the book; many other readers have presented many of the some criticisms I have, and while I do not share all of them I would like to address some of the more common ones:
- Sheryl Sandberg is blind to her own privilege – While this isn’t strictly true, it is true in a very important sense. In the forward to the book, she admits that she and her late husband (he was alive when the book was written) are in an incredibly lucky position that most women cannot achieve. She admits that much of the advice she has won’t apply to women who are working numerous part time jobs to make ends meet and don’t have the luxury of even paid sick leave or vacation time, let alone having the ability to fly private jets to commute to work and hire nannys/maids etc. Because she admits it you can’t really say she’s blind to it…but what you can say is that if you aren’t a COO or in the C-Suite of a major company, so much of her advice is useless to you that I question whether it would even be worth it to read the book. While this is a major issue for many readers, I don’t think it diminishes the advice in the book; but it does severely limits the audience which can benefit from it. And again, she’s the COO of Facebook…if you pick this up expecting advice you as a single mom working a part time job at McDonalds can use, then you have made a serious error in judgement.
- She advocates playing by the rules established by the male-dominated working world in order to advance – This I feel is a legitimate complaint, but I am not sure there is a way around it. There is a noticeable whiff of hypocrisy in telling women that they need to “…sit at the table” and learn to negotiate, and then at the same time tell them that they need to make sure that when they do they are “non-threatening” and “smiling” and such. Sandberg herself admits that this is a major problem, and that it belittles you in very dangerous ways. However, many of the critiques that take issue with this book, including the critique referenced above, decide that a balls-to-the-wall approach is the only way to gain a seat at the table. While they are correct that being submissive and non-threatening and hoping that the men will one day let you sit at the table so you can make the changes you know need to get made is unrealistic and likely never to happen, walking in guns blazing and burning down the existing order is not going to win you a seat at the table either. As in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
- Her solution is simply to put more women in power, and that will fix everything – This is another complaint I think has some staying power. It’s not easy to miss that this is her solution to the problems facing women in the working world; it’s literally everywhere in the book. I think it’s part of the solution to be sure, but you can’t rely on just putting women in the top spots and relying on them to look out for the women below them. She undercuts her own argument of the benevolent female CEO solution in later chapters in the book, when she acknowledges the existence of what she calls the Queen Bee, a throwback to the days where there was a token woman who played by men’s rules and somehow managed to get to the top. But because she was only a token, her position was under threat from any other woman in the company and she dealt with those threats accordingly. Sandberg readily acknowledges that women need to start treating women better, because the backstabbing and the games and the squabbling amongst us impedes uniting for real progress. But it’s foolhardy to acknowledge that this is the way many businesses operate, and then simply say that women at the top will fix it.
There are several critiques that I had of the book as well, on top of the most common ones you will see above. Here’s what had me shaking my head in a firm no as I was making my way through the book.
- Being open with your emotions at work – This comes from a good place really. Sandberg recounts a story of how she has been so frustrated at work that she has ended up in tears, and how Mark Zuckerberg has encouraged her continue to express herself as she sees fit. She also recounts a story of a friend whose child was diagnosed with a serious disease, and for many reasons she was hesitant to disclose this information to her employer. But then the stress of the situation became too much, and she wound up in tears at the office. This lead to a conversation between her employer and herself about the issue, which opened up opportunities like flexible scheduling and things that her friend could take advantage of; things she wouldn’t have known about without the breakdown. This grated on my nerves because it’s another instance of where these women were incredibly lucky that they work in a workplace with a more progressive culture. Silicon Valley is relatively young, and these companies tend to be at the cutting edge of much needed workplace reforms. But her recommendation that women do this in order to try and change perceptions of women and remove the fear from this kind of situation is very misguided for a lot of women. There are many women who would not be so lucky if they did this at work because they work in an environment/industry/area of the country where this kind of behavior would be damaging to your career. In Silicon Valley, California you can risk this and get away with it…in the Midwestern United States or in conservative industries…not so much. It is not wise to make yourself a martyr to the larger cause of women in the workplace by torching your career in an effort to follow this kind-hearted but misguided advice.
- Working Moms vs. Stay-at-Home Moms vs. Childless by Choice – Because Sheryl Sandberg is a mother, much of her advice is geared towards women who are mothers, or women who want to be mothers. She spends quite a bit of time talking about how the so-called Mommy Wars are damaging to everyone and that women should be respected for the whether they decide to work as mothers or to stay at home with children. But that same respect should also be extended to women who choose not to have children. While the Mommy Wars are a real thing, those of us who decide not to have children are often the targets for both the working moms brigade and the stay-at-home moms brigade. As someone who is Childless by Choice, I often find myself under fire from the stay-at-home mom brigade not only because I chose not to have children, but also because I am career-focused. At the same time, the working moms brigade will see me as a serious threat in the workplace because I am more available and flexible than they can be; after all I don’t have to call in sick to tend for sick kiddos, take off early to attend school events, or turn down work travel because of school obligations. To my fellow CBC cohorts who want to read this book, much of the advice you can use is located within the first 1/3 of the book…the rest is not really applicable to you. This also brings us to:
- Feminism – Sandberg glosses over uncomfortable feelings that are often associated with the word Feminist. She admits to not being comfortable with it when she was younger, but now considers herself to be “…a cheerleader for feminism.” This is also a label I’m not entirely comfortable with. It really depends on what you mean by feminist. If you mean someone who advocates for equal pay for women, someone who champions the rights of women to sit at the table and thinks that gender should not be an issue in things like promotions and other areas of life, then count me in 110%. But if you mean someone who is closed-minded to the decisions that women make, or someone who thinks that gender should be the deciding factor in things like who you support for President (I’m looking at you Madeline Albright!), then count me out. Even Gloria Steinem, who Sandberg profiles as a paragon of feminism and an example we should all try to emulate, at times falls into the latter camp, as her recent suggestion that younger women are only supporting Bernie Sanders because “…that’s where the boys are” betrays her tendency towards a reflexive, anti-man type of feminism that manages to offend and belittle both genders. Sandberg wades into the zero-sum game that you are either with us or against us type of mentality when it comes to feminism, and this grates on me. Women do need to unite and work together to advance our cause, but it must come through respect for all of the decisions that women make, not just the ones we agree with, and it can’t become a reflexive habit with gender as the deciding factor for every decision. It needs to be a thoughtful and active decision.