Why ‘Lean In’ Is Worth Reading — Particularly For Young Women

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.

What makes Lean In valuable, particularly for women at the earlier stages of those careers, is that it provides a series of prompts for those of us who are still figuring out what we want and what we can handle, and advice for asking for getting it in a world that often punishes women for behaving like men. Lean In is significantly anecdotal, but those anecdotes serve less as hard and fast rules, and more as thought experiments. In one example, Sandberg relates the advice she gave to Priti Choksi when she was trying to recruit the younger woman to join Facebook:

I explained that although it was counterintuitive, right before having a child can actually be a great time to take a new job. If she found her new role challenging and rewarding, she’d be more excited to return to it after giving birth. If she stayed put, she might decide that her job was not worth the sacrifice. Priti accepted our offer. By the time she started at Facebook, she was already expecting. Eight months later, she had her baby, took four months off, and came back to a job she loved. She later told me that if I had not raised the topic, she would have turned us down.

That’s an idea that may have occurred to women who have already had the experience of having a child and returning to the workforce, as Sandberg did. (In what appears to be a misreading of Sandberg’s definition of leaning in, Applebaum says that Sandberg leaned out for taking a real maternity leave when she had her second child, when Sandberg explains that embracing maternity leave made it easier for her to come back to the job.) But it’s a way of framing that particular question that puts aside concerns about whether a woman might look less than committed for taking maternity leave early in a new job, and emphasizes what will make a woman feel energized, encouraged, and engaged instead.


Similarly, Sandberg suggests a different way to look at the cost of child care. Rather than considering nannying or preschool costs as a dilemma, something that wipes out a woman’s earnings, or that’s discretionary spending to allow a woman to continue doing something that she likes, Sandberg once again reframes the question, acknowledging that “Child care is a huge expense, and it’s frustrating to work hard just to break even. But professional women need to measure the cost of child care against their future salary rather than their current salary…Wisely, Anna and other women have started to think of paying for child care as a way of investing in their families’ future.” Again, I don’t blame any working woman who’s already made these calculations and reached this conclusion for not finding Sandberg’s advice helpful. But for young women, like the one who Sandberg describes quizzing her on work-life balance issues even though she wasn’t pregnant — it turns out she didn’t even have a boyfriend — these kinds of examples are a useful early intervention.

And beyond the question of balancing work and family, an issue that only comes into play for many women once they’ve already put significant work into their careers, Sandberg’s case studies are useful advice for women who are already on board to lean in, but understand that they can be penalized for that desire. Sandberg’s clear that she understands it’s on some level unproductive to continue asking women to play by rules that reward men and punish women for the same behavior, but she suggests that it’s better to give women tools that will allow them to succeed now, rather than to wait for a perfect world. One was she suggests that women should handle the pressure on women to be concerned with a group as a whole rather than with their own success and performance is to negotiate with those values in mind.

“I have advised many women to preface negotiations by explaining that they know that women often get paid less than men so they are going to negotiate rather than accept the original offer,” Sandberg advises. “By doing so, women position themselves as connected to a group and not just out for themselves; in effect, they are negotiating for all women. And as silly as it sounds, pronouns matter. Whenever possible, women should substitute ‘we’ for ‘I.’”

She also suggests that women take advantage of that expectation that they’ll be concerned with others rather than with themselves. Sandberg gives this example:

In 2004, four female executives at Merrill Lynch started having lunch together once a month. They shared their accomplishments and frustrations. They brainstormed about business. After the lunches, they would all go back to their offices and tout one another’s achievements. They couldn’t brag about themselves, but they could easily do it for their colleagues. Their careers flourished and each rose up the ranks to reach managing director and executive officer levels. 17 The queen bee was banished, and the hive became stronger.

In journalism, that’s the guiding principal behind sites like LadyJournos or the newly-launched Journos Of Color, outlets that spotlight the work of female and non-white writers in part so they don’t have to promote themselves on their own. Sandberg may not have definitive proof that women executives make the workplace better for all women simply by their presence. But among the other advice Lean In gives to women, the argument it makes is that if women lean in, we don’t have to do it alone, or in competition with other women as a class. Given all the expectations and double standards women face in a business environment, that’s a welcome challenge to stereotype — and a suggestion that women have strength, resources, and flexibility we may not be taking advantage of.