Book Review: Lean In

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She explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for what they really are–impostors with limited skills or abilities.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg

As a young woman who’s been working in tech for roughly three years, Lean In has always been on my radar. I’ve  mostly worked in male-dominated workplaces, mostly reported to male managers since beginning my professional career,  and, as I grow older, grown only more aware of my sex and race and how they impact my performance (and how others perceive it) in the workplace. I was interested in how someone like Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook, former vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) would address these issues.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about this book. I learned little that I could not have gleaned from similar articles, discussing with other professional women, or even journaling my own thoughts and experiences. Although I obviously haven’t had a career as long or prolific as Sandberg’s, I found most of the book’s observations fairly straightforward. Maybe it’s because I already had an interest in this topic and had read similar articles before. In any case, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. There were many pages dedicated to topics that weren’t yet relatable to me — maternity leave, child care, marriage. I’m still clinging on to my early twenties and not seriously considering those options yet, although they will probably become more relevant to me in the next decade or so.

However, what I found most shocking was the way Sandberg chooses to express some ideas. The book claims to advocate for women…however, I felt it only represented a specific kind of woman. In my experience, my identity as a racial minority has impacted my professional life (whether it is in my attitudes or attitudes others have towards me) as much as my identity as a woman has. There’s brief mentions of women of colour, single women, and the LGBTQ community, but it’s clear who this book was really written for: white, upper middle class, professional women who are married with children or plan to be. Sure, there’s a blurb here or there about respecting women who are stay at home mothers or who do not want to advance in their careers…but this seems more like lip service than anything. For example, Sandberg recounts a time when she dropped off her son at school in a blue t-shirt and another mother remarked that it was St. Patrick’s Day and that he should be wearing green. She recounts herself feeling offended, guilty, and somewhat dismissive of the other mother. Later in the book, though, she praises this mother as one of the school’s most dedicated volunteers. Yet it’s hard to shake the earlier sense of combativeness and superiority she has towards this (presumably) full-time parent.

Another anecdote recounts a women’s career panel Sandberg attended where three panelists were married with children, while the fourth was unmarried. The fourth panelist argued that she had just as much right to leave early for a party as her colleagues did for their kids’ soccer games. She reasoned that because the party was an opportunity for her to meet a man with whom to start a family, her desire to go to the party was equally valid.

I couldn’t believe Sandberg called herself a feminist and thought this was acceptable to print or agreed with this sentiment. I believe in a woman’s right to aspire to marriage, but this anecdote frames a career woman as only deserving of two areas of interest: her career and her family (or a chance at a family). In fact, the book does not encourage women to pursue any interests unless they benefit society, and Sandberg makes no mention of any hobbies or interest of her own outside of work and family. This sends the wrong message. If that panelist had wanted to go rock climbing, indulge in a pedicure, or simply stay home and read a book, I believe that that is as valid a use of time as her married colleague taking off early to see her child’s soccer game.

I found the lack of representation for women of colour and for women who identify as LGBTQ in this book troubling. One could argue that the book is mainly about Sandberg’s experience and since she is neither a woman of colour nor a member of the LGBTQ community (as far as I know), that is why the book does not discuss issues pertaining to those groups in depth. Sandberg discusses marriage in depth, however marriage is only described as a union between a man and a woman. However, nearly a third of the book is footnotes, and it is clear that Sandberg researched and spoke to many other women while writing this book. I was able to relate to this book because of my background working in tech. However, I didn’t relate to it as a racial minority.

Lean In promotes inclusivity by being ignorant of its own exclusivity. I believe it would have been beneficial for Sandberg to solicit more opinions and experiences  from other women for her book, as her own life is not exactly relatable. When urging women to find partners (male, of course) who prioritize family, she casually recounts how her husband, then-CEO of SurveyMonkey, moved his company from Portland to the Bay Area to be with her. What about those of us who aren’t married to CEOs? Or what about the employees he uprooted or fired for his personal decision?

YES OR NO?: I know Sheryl Sandberg probably wrote this book with good intentions. With its focus on women’s role in the workplace, though, I was shocked that she glossed over women who identify as a racial minority and/or LGBTQ. I found myself growing more frustrated with the author the further I read, and odds are, if you’re not a billionaire COO who went to Harvard Business School, you probably will feel the same.

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