When Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was released earlier this year, I, to use the oft-repurposed and much-misunderstood lingo of Sandberg herself, leaned out. The book was the subject of a feminist furor, fueled by a quotation from an interview Sandberg gave for the documentary Makers that was unfairly truncated to suggest that she saw herself as some sort of social visionary, and the suggestion that readers form “Lean In Circles,” a sort of consciousness-raising-meets-corporate-boardroom series of study groups. The fray seemed unappealing, and besides, I’d reasoned, I was doing a decent job of leaning in, even if I haven’t yet complicated my work-life balance with marriage and children.
But last week, a good girlfriend suggested I give Lean In a try, and I finished it just as Anne Applebaum published a joint review of Sandberg’s book and Hanna Rosin’s The End Of Men in the New York Review of Books, situating Sandberg’s volume squarely in the tradition of business advice books. Applebaum seems disappointed, as she puts it, that “this is not a book that belongs on the shelf alongside Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi. It belongs in the business section,” and maybe given some of the hype around Lean In, that’s fair. I’m more than willing to grant that the book has many of the flaws that have been ascribed to it, including a failure to extensively discuss the role of paid help in Sandberg’s work-life balance, the fact that the book is not particularly applicable to working-class women, and its cursory treatment of women in the Third World. But if you are a woman preparing to begin a white-collar job, or to level up from one to the next, Lean In is worth reading precisely as a business book, and not because it has definitive answers for every situation, but as a useful guide for thinking through situations where there is no clear or easy answer—particularly those where women face social obstacles particular to their gender.
Applebaum’s critique of Lean In as business advice—separate from her criticisms of Sandberg’s argument that women in business leadership will create a more supportive environment for the women coming up behind them—has three central tenets. First, that Sandberg’s advice appears contradictory, suggesting that women speak more at some times and less at others, or arguing for women to project confidence they don’t feel in some situations, while being emotionally honest in others. Second, she argues that Sandberg doesn’t provide enough specific detail about her childcare arrangements for other women to model. And finally, Applebaum suggests that Sandberg hasn’t given enough room to discuss factors like luck and her ability to get along with difficult men, like former Treasury Secretary and longtime Sandberg mentor Larry Summers. Those last two criticisms aren’t unreasonable, and it would be fascinating to read Sandberg’s advice for dealing with Summers, but it’s hard to see how knowing precisely how many nannies Sandberg hires would help those of us who don’t have her financial resources. And I think Sandberg would have no disagreement with Applebaum’s argument that:
In practice, a successful woman—like a successful man—must learn, early on, how much emotion to show and how much to conceal, depending on the circumstances. She must learn how much to speak and how much to keep silent, for that depends on the circumstances too. Above all, she must understand herself well enough to know which challenges are worth accepting and which—given her personal situation, her husband, her finances, her interests, her age—must be sensibly refused.