Lean In: A (sort of) Book Review

"Yet the world has a way of reminding women that they are women, 
and girls that they are girls." ~Sheryl Sandberg

I've been waiting several weeks to write this review of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. Waiting on myself to finish it between work, the home shift, and writing my own stuff to which I gave precedence until the first draft was finished. Some two months later, here we are.

First, a confession. From the outset, I girded myself, prepared to dislike Lean In. Not the concept; that wasn't it. Unlike Sandberg's early aversion to the stereotypical "bra burning, man hating" version of the word, I've never had difficulty proclaiming my feminism to whomever would listen. This didn't necessarily entail pinning a scarlet F to my chest. Often, my feminism made itself known in my active support for women and their needs. Thus, when I heard her interview on NPR's Morning Edition, I did two contradictory things. I felt myself lean away from her soft, non-threatening version of feminism, and I ordered the book that very day. Even before Lean In arrived in my perfectly suburban mailbox, I wrote the title and Sandberg's name on two sticky notes and gave them to two of my (male) staff members with the same comment for each. "You should order this for your wife. Today." I am nothing if not an untidy bundle of contradictions. My only regret on finishing the book is that I didn't do the same for my two (male) staff who don't have wives and/or aren't seeing people at the moment. And my lone female employee? I should pony up and buy her copy myself.

I haven't joined Lean In on Facebook. In another confession, I don't use Facebook very often. I do have a Facebook page, and once upon a time, I used it relatively often. The combination of having a daughter in college with whom I'm friends on Facebook (I'm not sure I recommend that for any parent) and a need to back away from so much public exposure of my private life led to a hiatus a couple of years ago. I'm toying with returning. So please don't burn me in effigy yet; there's no personal affront meant to Sandberg at all. Neither she nor the company has done anything wrong. (I have followed @leanin on Twitter if that counts.) I only mention this, because I haven't shared my own Lean In story on Facebook, but I will share it here as I work through my thoughts on the book. They are complex, as are the stories of the women who've chosen to lean in... and those who have chosen not to do so.

I know I'm not alone in what I'm going to say. I know this, because Sandberg discusses in Lean In multiple speaking engagements on "women in work" and related issues and how, after speaking, she hears from women worldwide that she's spoken to their lives and their hearts. Again, I am not alone in what I'm going to say. As I read Lean In, I found myself nodding at so many places and thinking she's telling my story. And she was. The tragedy of Lean In was that Sandberg told my story in all the wrong places, the places where I had chosen to lean away from the table (or not sit there at all, as happened a few days ago despite a male colleague entreating me to sit at the table and beside him), places where I felt pressured to make a choice I shouldn't have had to make... places where I had been subverted either by accidental bias or intentional malice, where my partner had not been a partner, where my own inner voice had damned (and dammed) my potential (like that recent choice). Perhaps worst of all, Sandberg wrote of the double standards within which we women operate that help to perpetuate our second class status. So, while I nodded and appreciated her ability to speak to me, I also lamented that she spoke to me so well.

Lean In is a must read for all men and women who want to advance economic and social equality for the sexes in a just, humane, and uplifting way.

I wondered for a good while as I read if I even had a lean in story to tell. I realized I did. Then I realized I had more than one and stories about more than just myself. Perhaps the most salient for me was the day I interviewed for the job I now hold, Director of Institutional Research, Effectiveness, and Reaffirmation for a community college that boasts 15,000+ students pursuing academic credentials and another 25,000+ pursuing job certifications and lifelong learning opportunities. I had a lot riding on the interview. The position was, in some regards, a long way from where I'd started on the career jungle gym Sandberg describes. I had also been out of work for twenty-one months and needed to land a job. At the same time, I wasn't willing to take just any job. I wanted something that appropriately matched my education and experience to the needs of the organization and would stretch my skills enough that I could learn new things on the job. I wanted to bring the best of myself to the college while also finding opportunities for my own growth.

After facing a lengthy interview process complete with about a dozen folks on the committee (including two vice presidents, an associate vice president, two people who would report directly to me, and sundry other people from around the college), I concluded my presentation and Q&A session. The interview broke, and I spent a couple of minutes one-on-one with the VP to whom I would report if I got the job. As I shook her hand to say goodbye, she explained that they still had a few other candidates to interview, they hoped to make a decision in the next couple of weeks, etc. I smiled, told her how much I respected the organization and how easy the fit between the position and my skills seemed, and said, "Please forgive me for saying so, but I hope the other candidates fall flat." I had never done anything like that before in an interview, but the VP, who is now the president at a sister college, burst out laughing and told me she hoped they did, too. A week later she offered me the job on a Friday, and even though she wanted me to start work the following Monday, I was able to successfully negotiate a later starting date as we had to relocate and I had to cope with school enrollments and after school care for my elementary aged children.

This story represents one moment in my life, or one sequence rather. Although I possessed an education and the requisite training to score highly in the selection and interview process, I needed to lean in to stick the landing. Sandberg discusses many such moments for herself and others. One of the aspects I appreciate most about Lean In is Sandberg's candor, which could not have been easy in some moments. I imagine that many of them caused her no small amount of pain to admit. Hurtful comments, damning press, self-doubt, and fear. This humility renders what is, in many ways, a call to arms also a very human story. If an editor, a beta reader, a friend said to her along the way, "Oh, really Sheryl, you shouldn't say that," then I'm glad she didn't listen. Not only do her personal anecdotes make Lean In real, they also temper the economics geek's numbers hand. I sense Sandberg and I have this in common, the desire to hide our emotional selves behind the research, and for this book, for women's issues in general, the data are clear and compelling. It's a simple matter to let them speak for us and shield our personal pain by doing so. For myself, I often give in to the temptation and lose the reader in the process. Sandberg doesn't. Lean In, while generously peppered with hard data in all the right places, never becomes pedantic, always retains its one-on-one conversational appeal. Kudos. I am impressed.

Although Sandberg focuses on the inequities that continue to plague women in the workplace, particularly women in middle and upper management in American companies, I do want to praise her for also addressing inequalities in both perceptions and realities for women who stay home and for men who do, too. This pleased me an inordinate amount, for my lovely, well educated sister regularly leans in… and is a woman who "works inside the home," as Sandberg describes it.

From my own perspective, my sister, too, knows how to sit at the table. I do not think we came by this trait genetically, for we are as different as beer and wine. (I'm the beer, she's the wine.) Both of our parents contributed to our ability to do the things for which Sandberg advocates: sit at the table, lean in, speak out. Our dad, the very epitome of American salesmanship, imbued our entire upbringings with the people skills necessary for connection and engagement, while our mother taught us that the concept of "girl" = "barrier" existed only in the minds of the unenlightened. We were lucky. I was lucky to do the first two years of my doctoral program at North Carolina State University during the years my sister did her final two years of undergrad; this was a bonding time for us. We got to know one another as women and as thinkers apart from family. A year later, she married her husband, to whom she is still married. He is a career naval officer, and they have two boys I don't get to see nearly enough.

My beautiful, intelligent, highly motivated sister now lives in Japan and works inside the home. This is her choice, certainly made easier by my brother-in-law's career choices but not necessitated by them. At the same time, she is the District Membership Chair for the Japan District of Boy Scouts of America. The district includes mainland Japan and Okinawa. She also instructs elementary aged children in yoga most days during the week at a Department of Defense school. For neither of these things does she earn a paycheck, but she does build her organizational skills (and network), management skills, skills in mentoring, budget, flexibility... There is almost no aspect of high level management (with the Boy Scouts) and no aspect of leadership and leadership development in which she is not investing in herself while she's doing the work she feels is most critical at this stage in her life, mothering. My sister is my hero.

Moments, chapters even, of Lean In flew by when Sandberg approached hero status for me, too. Slowly, I unpacked my predispositions toward disliking this book. The data I already knew. The anecdotes warmed me, and Sandberg's humility and grace infected me. (I'm pretty sure that was by design, but almost everything we do is. Spontaneity is nearly dead in the twenty-first century.) Two points bothered me, however, and I think both warrant a brief discussion.

In the first instance, Lean In's Chapter Three, "Success and Likeability" presents a wealth of research and personal stories regarding the perception of women in the workplace. If you've heard of Sandberg and Lean In, then you've heard about the interaction between sex and likeability in the workplace, the phenomenon that when men are successful, they are perceived as more likeable while the reverse is true for women. Aggressive is the term Sandberg cites most frequently as associated with successful women. Ouch. (I know this one up close and personal.) My point of contention with the chapter isn't the research. It isn't Sandberg's anecdotal evidence. I don’t like that Sandberg advocates we advocate for ourselves "with a smile." Sandberg willingly admits her own hope that one day the bias against successful women that leads to the inverse relationship between likeability and success in the workplace will reduce this necessity, but she advocates for the necessity nonetheless. I disagree. I believe that, so long as we perpetuate the "necessity," it will remain one. Further, the advice to advocate with a smile is almost at odds with Sandberg's later opining that she feels everyone in the workplace would benefit from "being nicer." Now that is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree; I only wish Chapter Three had been framed within this context.

My second issue with Lean In is more global. I want to begin with a caveat. I listened to Sandberg as I read this book. I leaned in to her and listened with both ears and an open mind. And I believed in what she said (exception above excluded). Thus, I believe in Sandberg's personal mission and the values that her parents instilled in her, particularly the value of helping others. This is, perhaps, the reason I wish Lean In spoke to all women and not just those in positions of leadership or in the position to one day be in a position of leadership. While some of the data contained within the covers of this book do speak to lower class and the struggling, squeezed lower middle class women in our world, the narrative of Lean In does not. These women do not have many, if any, opportunities to sit at the table, to lean in, to speak out. I understand that this book cannot be all things to all people. No book can. At the same time, Lean In seeks to give voice to those who silence themselves and to admonish society for its silencing of them. Sandberg speaks of women who work inside the home and of those who work outside the home. I do believe a chapter could have been provided to those who work inside the homes of those who work outside the home, of those whose work for non-humane wages perpetuates the perceptions that women should not sit at the table but lay it in readiness for their men. So long as we relegate these women to off-page status, to footnotes and by-the-way mentions, we are not making real progress.

Melinda Gates is quoted as saying, "All lives have an equal value." I believe that. Sandberg encouraged readers in Chapter Six of Lean In to find and speak their truth. I believe that, too. If the truth is that the world's perspective on women is unequal and that women perpetuate the biases against themselves, then we must speak to and for each of us, lifting the potential of all of us as we do.

Read Lean In. Be inspired as Faulkner said not to be better than your fellows but to be better than yourself as you close the cover on the final page. Then make the world better for women everywhere. Your daughters (and sons) will thank you.


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