How sad it is, all this bashing of Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book, which is partly a memoir, partly a gender critique of the corporate world, and partly pointers for women in business, has received a lot of (vicious) criticism lately that generally falls into one of these camps:
Sandberg, the current chief operating officer of Facebook got lucky (i.e. rich) and now she wants to rub our faces in it.
Her advice sucks.
She’s a self-promoter.
She so brazenly thinks her experiences might help other women, she’s even set up an organization to create mentors. As if anyone has time for that! The nerve.
Having read the book – which is now roaring up the the bestseller lists – none of the snipes are fair. In fact, I wonder how many of Sandberg’s harshest critics actually read the book themselves. Despite what this Slate columnist suggests, she does not spend a lot of space proposing women practise “one-hour forced smile sessions.” She does recommend smiling, in general – a bold move – but she makes that passing reference while sharing how she used to be an aerobics teacher. If that’s your big take-away from the book, then you should probably save your $30.
Is her advice perfect? No. And she says so herself.
The book distills down to a pre-emptive warning to women moving up the corporate ladder (or the jungle gym, as she calls it): Here are the stereotypes you’ll likely face, and the ones you may have unconsciously perpetuated yourself, and here are some tips to handle it.
Some of her advice applies to everyone: Confidently take your seat at the table, but don’t dominate the conversation. Be ready to “’lean in” during the early years. Ask for the raise, she says, but share credit with your team. Choose your life partner carefully. If women have to be particularly mindful of this tricky balance, she concedes, well, that’s the game we play to get the top. And she wants the company. For one thing, it’s harder to focus attacks when your critics have many targets.
For the record, I liked the Sheryl Sandberg I met in the book. Even if a good ghost writer did the heavy lifting, Lean In cites interesting research, quotes other female executives, and shares some funny anecdotes – like discovering lice on her daughter while flying with colleagues on a corporate jet.
But that’s also my problem with the book: Sandberg tries too hard to be likable. She does the work for her inevitable critics in the introduction and then continues to apologize every so often. She knows she can’t speak for all women; she knows people will huff that she has the benefit of being rich and she keeps reminding us that she supports the right of women to choose their career or family priorities. She clarifies that she’s not a “scholar, a journalist, or a sociologist,” and that her book is a “sort of” feminist manifesto. (It should be noted, that at least, unlike many prominent women, she proudly declares herself a feminist.)
Why does she do this? She falls into the very trap she cautions her readers to watch out for: worrying too much about being popular, to the detriment of their ambitions. I don’t care if I like Sandberg, I want to read what she has to say. I don’t want her to waste words feeling awkward for being talented and lucky. Why do we expect successful women to speak for every woman? That’s impossible. Lean In does focus more on individual action than wider systemic change. (Maybe that will be in her next book). But why would we assume she has all the answers, anyway? Are readers not discriminating enough to take the nuggets that make sense to them and leave the rest?
The reaction to her book proves her thesis – women are stuck either way. If Steve Jobs (the last guy to have worried about his likeability factor) had offered to guide a mentorship program, the crowds would have lined up – and I bet, despite what critics snipe, a lot of young women will do the same for Sandberg. The truth is, books on work-life balance line the shelves at Chapters. However, there aren’t enough like Lean In .
“In the future,” Sandberg writes hopefully, “there will be no female leaders. Just leaders.”
And maybe, in that same future, a smart, successful female business leader can write a book, and it will just be a book by a smart, successful business leader. Fingers crossed.