On leaning in

Sheryl Sandberg's new book, out on March 11, has already provoked much argument

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is an idealist, or at least an optimist. Lean In, her charming, self-deprecating book that lands March 11, outlines her take on how more women can achieve higher professional success by “leaning in,” defined as “being ambitious in any pursuit,” though her focus is the pursuit of corporate leadership, and her take on ambition is complex. More women in power, her basic argument goes, will both shatter the glass ceiling and raise the floor for women in the workplace.

I say she’s an idealist because she posits that, if women ran half of everything, the American labor force would suddenly be an equal place with cushy parental leave for all. And while she has a point in noting that it may take a woman in a high position to demand that bosses reserve pregnancy parking close to the office, perks like that actually won’t change conditions for much of the workforce, who can’t even stay home when they’re sick, much less leave early to have dinner with their children, as Sandberg famously does.

She is careful to mention this class divide multiple times. “I am also acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families,” she writes. But all the anecdotes supporting her case for leaning in—engaging moments depicting Sandberg and the A-listers that populate her world—hinge on women in privileged positions.

Leaning in also appears to depend on women monolithically supporting one another’s achievements when, at least in the educated, privileged circles she targets, there is considerable dissension over the best way to do things.

Take Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer—currently reigniting the Mommy Wars by eliminating the option for her employees to telecommute. Sandberg recounts how Mayer, who was hired at Yahoo during her third trimester of pregnancy, took only a couple weeks of leave before returning to work. This angered some women who saw it as leading by example—one that they weren’t eager to follow. Sandberg criticizes those who spoke out against Mayer’s whiplash maternity leave:

The attacks on Marissa for her maternity leave came almost entirely from other women … We should strive to resolve our differences quickly, and when we disagree, stay focused on our shared goals. This is not a plea for less debate, but for more constructive debate. In Marissa’s case, it would have been great to keep the focus on her breakthrough achievements.

It sounds like she’s fomenting a feminist conspiracy to take over the world: Stay on message, ladies!

Sandberg also seems as though she’s attempting to marshal the troops when she tells women that, to reach her and Mayer’s prominence, it’s necessary to use their lady tricks. Bosses dislike women who negotiate, Sandberg writes, so women should hedge and say their managers suggested they request a higher salary. They should also smile a lot and emphasize common, collective goals. “I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations,” Sandberg writes. “I know it is not a perfect answer but a means to a desirable end.”

And though she makes a clear effort to include all women—single, married, lesbians, with or without children—in Lean In, her whole philosophy is built around corporate climbers with supportive husbands that shoulder half the childcare. (Where do butch women fit into that suggestion to adhere to societal rules of femininity?)

That Sandberg is aware of many of the paradoxes throughout Lean In doesn’t resolve them, and they take the fire out of a useful message from a smart woman: Strive for the work and home lives of your dreams rather than assuming, preemptively, that you’ll have to settle.

Besides diluting her message, the cognitive dissonances in Sandberg’s book have also caused a run of critical media coverage.

In The New York Times, recent coverage by both Jodi Kantor and Maureen Dowd questioned whether Sandberg’s push—alongside publicizing her book—to form “Lean In Circles,” where women will internalize her precepts, would gain traction. Dowd, using her characteristic snark, homed in on the disconnect between Sandberg’s privileged position and that of most other women in the country and suggested that Lean In is the start of Sandberg the politician.

But both stories got sloppy while making their (reasonable) points, skewing Sandberg’s words or their context.

“I always thought I would run a social movement,” Kantor quoted Sandberg as saying in her interview on Makers, the PBS documentary on feminist history that debuted on February 26. Dowd repeated the quote in her column two days later. Both used it as a shorthand to call Sandberg’s Lean In campaign a long-term goal finally coming to fruition while making her sound a bit airheaded. (The quote was repeated yet again a couple days later in an op-ed in the Washington Post.) But Sandberg’s full sentence, later corrected in the Times, was, “I always thought I would run a social movement, which meant basically work at a nonprofit. I never thought I’d work in the corporate sector.” Kantor’s story also depicted a clash between Sandberg and Anne-Marie “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” Slaughter, describing an alleged fallout between the two women as “the most notable feminist row since Ms. Friedan refused to shake Gloria Steinem’s hand decades ago.” Slaughter has since publicly rejected that depiction.

AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher called out the Times for using Sandberg’s words out of context, and then went on to say that she sees the negative response to the not-yet-released book as a culture clash between old and new media in which “old media” are assuming prematurely that Sandberg’s call to women won’t succeed. “Here’s the thing,” Swisher writes. “[Y]ou can’t really fail before you start, but perhaps that’s just a Silicon Valley thing.”

Despite the issues with Sandberg’s arguments and subsequent back- and counter-backlash, Lean In remains worth a read. Sandberg comes across as intelligent, open-minded, and passionate. She puts her own advice to use in the book, positioning herself among all women and imparting her advice with appealing humor. And she speaks from deep experience about how things work within the halls of power, a valuable peek into a world whose corridors are still closed to most women.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , , ,