“Buzz,” in addition to being an exhausted phrase, doesn’t come close to describing what preceded Sheryl Sandberg’s just-released book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. It was swarmed by what Salon.com writer Irin Carmon called “meta-reaction,” including anticipatory think-pieces, blog posts and social-media commentary about what an elite like Sandberg has to say about work, and also, what kind of interesting, new ways can be found to demean and diminish a successful woman. It’s not a “buzz,” actually: it’s a hiss. Clearly, Lean In has arrived at a moment when mainstream feminism needs some kind of useful, lasting momentum; Sandberg, who is taking a risk with a non-polemical but specifically feminist project, hopes to provide it.
Sandberg is only 43 – she grew up in Miami with supportive, activist parents, and attended Harvard and then Harvard Business School – but has worked as Clinton-era treasury secretary Larry Summers’s chief of staff, the “Business Unit General Manager” at Google and currently as the chief operating officer of Facebook, where she sits beside chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg. (She has denied that Lean In is part of a move toward public office.) At both Google and Facebook, Sandberg came on early and stayed while the companies developed; she is now super-wealthy. (“Growth” is a recurring theme in Lean In.)
Sandberg is also part of a small group of variously rich and uniformly straight, white women with high profiles who are writing about or just doing big jobs and raising families at the same time. This group also includes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor and former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, and the author of the widely discussed Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which was, like Lean In, mostly about other upper or upper-middle-class professional mothers, and in which she criticized Sandberg for her suggestion that women who didn’t actively pursue advancement were to blame for how few are in senior positions; Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s president and CEO, whose decision to work through a short maternity leave was covered as if it were actual news; and Hanna Rosin, the author of The End of Men, a controversial state-of-the-sexes book, largely about how working- and middle-class women are advancing professionally while men are falling behind, which serves as a more academic companion to Lean In. (The fairy bossmother of them all is, of course, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)
Lean In is, so far, the most accessible addition to this otherwise exclusive corner of contemporary feminist thinking. It is a light memoir of Sandberg’s accomplishments; a truly helpful career instructional (which my self-confident, intelligent friends who don’t know how to ask for a raise seem to need); and a feminist manifesto for women who might not call themselves feminists.
Brief and direct, it is split between compelling, careful research, practical advice and optimistic anecdotes; it’s also split between the idea that women are responsible for “leaning in” to more leadership and senior roles, and that institutions must make changes to accommodate and encourage them. Sandberg’s sensibility could be described as “mass”: She writes in a style not dissimilar to Malcolm Gladwell’s, outlining and clarifying an issue through repetition and metaphor. Rarely does she offer details or examples of real failure.
She is, also, always warm and “likable,” a cultural requirement of professionally ambitious women who contend with gender and work. (There are accidentally instructive instances in Lean In where Sandberg describes a problem of sexism and perception while she is simultaneously performing that problem; she describes a female-on-female conflict as a “cat fight.”)
Sandberg’s various privileges do inform the book, but she acknowledges and gets over it them with the efficiency of someone who leaves the Facebook office every day by 5:30 to have dinner with her family. (As Jezebel.com’s Tracie Egan Morrissey points out, “if someone said the same thing about men like Donald Trump or Warren Buffett – that they’re too rich to write books about how to climb the corporate ladder to success – people would laugh at the ludicrousness of such a suggestion.”)
Rich or not, Sandberg knows her subject, although she definitely seems to understand privileged women better than women who aren’t, and mostly focuses on unlikely best-case scenarios where male bosses are warm and huggy and inclined toward equality. (Her straw-woman usually has or wants a senior position in a somewhat traditional company, and is, curiously, never self-employed or part of the “gig economy.”) Despite her particular experience, Sandberg’s genuine openness, especially her admissions of guilt about working, and shame about being a “bossy” girl and a powerful woman, are risky and real.
“Leaning in” is an abstract idea: Sandberg seems to mean pushing toward the better opportunity, toward shared domestic labour, toward more difficulty and more reward. She refers often to the female tendency to withdraw from new jobs and bigger challenges (even and especially before having children).
The attempt to grapple with challenges and outright impossibilities without relying on a single ordering thesis other than “Keep going” is, however, what makes Lean In so worthwhile. Those contradictions are true: in the domain of heterosexual relationships, and male-dominated working environments, ideal circumstances for female growth rarely arise, but it happens anyway. Sandberg, although she never explicitly says so, is only recommending business strategy in a woman’s approach to various professional (and personal) contexts. She is a pragmatist, not a theorist, and wants us to be, too.
Kate Carraway is a columnist with The Globe and Mail and VICE magazine