Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, officially comes out today (Monday) but Amazon shipped over the weekend. So I read over the weekend. Sometimes while reading, I felt like I’d practically underlined the whole book, so much was I agreeing with what Sandberg has to say.
The title comes from her advice to young women. Noting that “the blunt truth is that men still run the world,” she looks at reasons that might be. Larger social forces are, of course, to blame. But so are internal obstacles. “Rather than engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first, let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts,” she says. And the good news about the internal front is that it can be addressed immediately!
She recounts the by now famous story of a young woman at Facebook who peppered her with questions about how she combined work and family. She asked if the woman was thinking of having a kid, and the young woman replied that she didn’t even have a boyfriend. “If my generation was too naive, the generations that have followed may be too practical,” writes Sandberg. “When it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them.” Women make choices to leave in bits and pieces. We slow down, thinking this will be required. But “the months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in,” says Sandberg. Leaning in gets you a better paying job, more authority, more autonomy, more flexibility. “The more satisfied a person is with her position, the less likely she is to leave. So the irony — and to me, the tragedy — is that women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of things they did to stay in the workforce. With the best of intentions, they end up in a job that is less fulfilling and less engaging.”
“Choosing to leave a child in someone else’s care and return to work is a difficult decision…Only a compelling, challenging, and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest.”
See why I was underlining so often? Lean In deals with many more topics. It’s partly Sandberg’s memoir, partly a career guide, and to a degree a feminist call to arms — at least for feminists who aren’t so busy privilege-checking other women that they can’t celebrate a powerful woman’s accomplishments without saying “oh, it’s easy for her, she can hire help” or other such things no one says when Jack Welch writes a book on success. Sandberg discusses various research that really needs to be written about more, like large scale, longitudinal studies showing that (in the words of the report summary) “children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were also cared for by others.” She also cites the historical time diary studies finding that employed women now spend as much time with their children as women who were not employed did a generation ago. I also enjoyed the random anecdotes, like one from the head of McKinsey’s DC office pondering why, when people quit because they were burnt out, they often did so with unused vacation days. Many of us need to take more responsibility for ourselves and our careers and our lives.
Overall, I have just two quibbles with Sandberg’s book. First, the idea of leaning in up until the point you have kids makes perfect sense…if you have kids in your late 30s. Sandberg was married once in her early 20s and was divorced by age 25. She married David Goldberg in her mid-30s and had her children after that. The problem with all this is that while there’s no perfect time to have children from a career perspective, there is from a biological perspective, and it’s quite a bit before 38. I got pregnant with my oldest child when I was 27. While I certainly do feel I leaned in before then, my leaning didn’t have the kind of decade-plus momentum it would have had at 37. Certainly, lean in before you have kids, but some of the emphasis has to stay on leaning in with kids too. I really want to see more stories out there of happy women who are having kids while in professional school, during the early years of big corporate careers, etc. As Sandberg writes, “It may not be as dramatic or funny to make a movie about a woman who loves both her job and her family, but that would be a better reflection of reality.”
One reason I suspect that Sandberg doesn’t hit too hard on the leaning in post kids concept is that she is trying to be inclusive and supportive of women who take time out of the labor force to raise kids. Such “choice feminism” is fine; I tend to agree that people should do what they want with their own lives (“most women are not focused on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day,” writes Sandberg). But while I like the choice rubric and agree with it, it leads to some logical inconsistencies. After all, Sandberg cites research that men with at-home wives tend to view the presence of women in the workplace less favorably. They deny promotions to qualified women more often. Perhaps the men in these relationships are the only ones making choices, and there is no universe in which their family situations would have been different. But if their wives also have a say in the matter, and their choice to stay home influences these men’s beliefs on women in the workplace, then such a choice hurts other women. That makes Sandberg’s exhortations for everyone to “work harder to rise above this” a bit more complicated.
But overall, it’s a good book, and a quick read, and I recommend checking it out — if for no other reason than that many, many people will be talking about it this week, and it’s good to know what a book actually says before drawing conclusions.