What is Sheryl Sandberg trying to say?

Sheryl SandbergSome of the earliest critiques of the critiques of Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial feminist manifesto-cum-rallying cry, complained that few of its hostile critics had actually read the book.

Well, reader, I have now read it.  And here’s my bottom line:  It’s a book that is fundamentally confused about what it wants to say.

Let’s start with the title. When we say “lean in,” what do we mean? As best I can decipher it, the answer is: It depends.

On the one hand, Lean In is a clarion call to a very specific set of barricades, urging women to aspire to the highest pinnacles of corporate and political life. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg writes in the introduction.

On the other, the book purports to be addressing Everywoman. “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously,” Sandberg writes in that same introduction. “This includes women at all stages of their lives and careers, from those who are just starting out to those who are taking a break and may want to jump back in . . . . This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious, in any pursuit.”

I’m not buying it.

One big hint as to the highly targeted agenda that lurks beneath this talk of inclusion is Sandberg’s statistical backdrop. Her claim that women “have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry”—an assertion that essentially frames everything that follows—draws its supporting data from only two realms: Fortune 500 companies and national politics. Among the roles ignored in this data capture: University presidents, law firm partners, investment bankers, federal judges, journalists and authors, film producers, medical doctors, technological innovators, entrepreneurs, and non-profit leaders.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the statistical frame is the fact that most of the female leaders about whom Sandberg writes so admiringly themselves fail to register on this screen. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem is invisible. So are White House Project founder Marie Wilson, Barnard President Debora Spar, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin. (And beyond the book, to name just a few, we have the three female U.S. Supreme Court Justices—Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor; Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust (in fact, half of the eight Ivy League schools now have women presidents); WHO Director General Margaret Chan; and Hillary Clinton—who would have made the cut during her time in the U.S. Senate but been dropped from Sandberg’s leadership stats during her years as Secretary of State.)

By none of this do I mean to suggest that women don’t face enormous obstacles on myriad professional fronts—or that the world would not be well served by having far more women in influential, high-profile positions. Rather, I’m balking at what strikes me as a constricted and restrictive notion of leadership. I’m uncomfortable with the word “leadership” being invoked as proxy for “leadership of a Fortune 500 company” or “leading a nation,” with the implicit assumption that this is “real” leadership, leadership in its purest, most significant incarnation. And, as I’ve written before, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that the most lucrative and powerful positions are necessarily the most valuable uses for 21st-century talent and passion.

That said, for all my issues with the book, there was much about it I liked. I often found myself writing “Yes!” in the margins or underlining a point to refer back to later.  Sandberg is engaging and likeable, and in the course of reading, I came up with a theory: In the beginning, she envisioned writing a book for younger versions of herself, “high potential” aspirants on the business fast track. But from her publisher’s perspective, the book needed to be far larger—bestsellers aren’t written to niche markets, and this needed to be a bestseller. This would go far towards explaining the book’s schizophrenic nature—its bouncing back and forth between the notion that leadership means looking like Sheryl Sandberg, and the idea that it could equally well mean looking like Sheryl Sandberg’s mother—a schoolteacher who turned down the opportunity to become a school administrator because she wanted to stay in the classroom. (“My mother has leaned in her entire life . . .  . She has always contributed to her community and the world. She is my inspiration,” Sandberg writes in what was for me a whiplash-inducing conclusion.)

In a graduation speech at Barnard that contained the seeds of Lean In, Sandberg exhorted young women to “Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top”—“to lean into your career and run the world.” Recalling this speech, she rhetorically asks: “If we can’t tell women to aim high at a college graduation, when can we?”

When can we? Well, if you’re asking me, I’d say the answer is Never.

The goal shouldn’t be to impose our own choices or strategies—to decide what success and happiness look like—but rather to foster the capacity to look within, to identify a uniquely personal vision of what it means to lead. For some, it will look like being COO of Facebook. For many—probably most—I suspect it will look quite different indeed.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

23 thoughts on “What is Sheryl Sandberg trying to say?

  1. I suspect your theory about the central disjunction in this book is accurate, or close to accurate. I haven’t read Sandberg’s book, but I know the publishing industry pretty well and have written several books as the writer paired with an expert. It’s really tough to get people to think through their ideas enough to make them all consistent over a long form, and between a publisher’s hysteria about widening the market and the difficulty of putting pressure on someone so busy and prominent, the book could easily turn out “schizophrenic” as you describe.

    I discovered your blog on the LinkedIn journalists group and really admire it. I’ll be back.

  2. I am a man. There, I said it. Before you read further its important for you to know. I find it’s hard to critique Sandberg, as a man, and not be immediately dismissed as the problem. “Of course he says that, he doesn’t get it” – that sort of thing. Perhaps I don’t. I at least know that, so I searched on the web for an intelligent discussion (rather than the all too common polarization that seems to exist). For what it’s worth, I typed “Sandberg” and “Cain” in the search algorithm and I ended up here, and thank goodness.

    I am so pleased to find a smart group of people thinking about this book, and discussing it like adults. (As I type that, it sounds patronizing – sorry, it’s not meant to and if you have scanned the web elsewhere on this topic, you will share my frustration. Sandberg has a big voice, and the megaphone of Facebook, and if she is mistaken, she needs to be challenged, not just vilified.) I loved Amy’s insights, and the balanced view she presents. I’ve read the book and for all its good intent, something doesn’t feel right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and your comments here – and the very lucid responses – help me narrow it down. It’s a confused call to arms, perhaps a self-centered one, more than anything. It’s well intentioned I am sure of that. I subscribe to the goals, broadly, for what it’s worth. But it falls foul of an unscientific – and therefore poor – process, by choosing a single framework and then sharing only the ‘evidence’ that supports your argument, and asserting it boldly. And hence it falls short.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I think Sandberg is an impressive person. Whether as a man, or a woman, she is impressive, for achieving what she has (a whole lot more than I ever will) and yes, in our imbalanced and male dominated world I know she probably had to fight a little harder than any equally talented male might have done, more than once. I agree with her goal: more diversity at all levels in our society would be most welcome.

    But Sandberg misses the point a little. Diversity is way more complex than gender issues, and to boil it down to that is not helpful. Its not just that she is choosing one big issue that she is passionate about and acknowledging along the way that it is one of many. Her framework fails to acknowledge any other concept, such as the equally viable argument of gender independent personality, which is what I think she is really addressing, without knowing (or at least declaring) it. In doing so, she fails to consider alternate models, other than gender, and implies consistently that men and women are exact opposites and common within their type. Not true.

    So, my conclusion is, she is no Susan Cain. (I recently finished her book, and I was blown away by its reasoning, clarity, focus and insight. Take seven years and research a subject thoroughly, and you get real quality.) Sandberg doesn’t come close, in terms of insight. Most importantly, she lacks emotional intelligence – really knowing herself, and others, at the level of behavior and social style. She certainly doesn’t show it, anyway, not from her personal anecdotes, many of which I found disingenuous. That’s what bugged me about ‘Lean In’. Cain shows an incredible insight about people, about others first and only then implies what she now understands about herself, and that leads to a practical framework and a pragmatic set of ideas that don’t conform to some simplistic and cliched (and, yes, resonant, publishable, imagination-capturing, best-selling) idea about gender.

    And it’s when Sandberg uses phrases like “men don’t do that / think like that” or “Her husband said ‘do you think a man would do that?'” that I shudder, and I know she is just plain wrong in her core assertion. Maybe she is right about her brother, or father, or the dreadful guy she had over to dinner who interrupted the women present, or other people in her close circle. But I can name as many men who would behave the opposite way, each time she makes such a universal claim – and yes, myself included, that’s why it jars – and I suspect from the way she talks in such admiring terms, her husband would, too, along with many of her male bosses. So, to make such sweeping statements is, sorry to say it, sexist and incorrect. And the argument she makes, no longer robust, is therefore lost. Sometimes right, but not always – maybe not even mostly.

    I’m not arguing the opposite here. Men are awful, often times. Aggressive, dominant, arrogant, dismissive, sexist, and all the rest. Men start wars, women usually clean up the mess. All the cliches are true, to some extent. It’s genetic, and its cultural, and its wrong, and it should change. (And its equally wrong when a women behaves the same disrespectful way – and we all know they exist.) But correlation is not proof. Take ‘Lean In’ and replace ‘woman / man’ with ‘introvert / extrovert’ and it makes the same point, and a lot more sense. Personality is key. Cain seems to get that, and give more practical advice. It’s why, I believe, ‘lean in’ as a solution makes no sense to some of us, like me and many others on this forum, but ‘look inwards / understand your values / be the person you want to be / etc’ resonates so strongly. It’s built from the individual, not the stereotype.

    Men need to read Sandberg’s book, and buy into it, if she wants to change the world (and changing it in the direction she advocates would be good). But if she had framed the argument less as a gender war, and more about how people behave, she might have had more chance of success in inspiring a wider audience. I do wish Sandberg had done that herself. Maybe with real insight about her own personality, she would have developed something more valuable for everyone else and have the positive impact she hoped for. Thankfully, Susan Cain wrote that book already.

    • You make some really terrific points, Andrew. Thank you so much for reading the post & sharing your perspective. Susan Cain was actually a law school classmate of mine and is indeed wonderful and insightful–everything you say. The male/female breakdown also troubled me — among other things, it seemed bizarrely outdated in a world where one of the hottest topics of the day is same-sex marriage to assume that everyone was married to someone of the opposite sex. Just odd! I also struggled with the persistent use of “we” — the most striking incidence being the assertion that “we” still do most of the childcare & housework–in response to which (being single with no kids), I found myself snippily thinking: “No, WE do none of the child care (as there are no children) and we do ALL of the housework, as there is just us!” Again, thank you so much for the great comments–as well as the kind words.

  3. I just bought the book and look forward to reading it. I appreciate the sneak peak into your impressions.

    • I hope you find it interesting, as I did! Much food for thought, and I think the conversations it’s spawned are important ones.

  4. What a helpful analysis! Thank you for sorting through these issues with clarity. I also appreciate the way you are supportive of other women by having high standards of honesty. Your writing is always such a breath of fresh air.

    • Thanks so much, Allegra! That means a lot coming from you. I’m actually going to hear her speak on Thursday–I’m looking forward to it.

  5. I guess that I am grateful for Sandberg’s voice in the ongoing discussion
    of women’s work life but so much of it seems to be beside the point.
    And, what is a the point? Just that women’s voice continued to be heard
    as decisions get made. I feel like Sandberg is one of those lucky few
    who made it not just because she was prescient or brilliant but because
    she wanted it so much she could change herself to meet her goals. Her
    book seems a simplistic defense of what she believes and has lived
    as a down-the -middle person. Really. Give me the woman or man who
    wants real change not just individual gain. Sheryl Sandberg feels like
    old news.

  6. Of course each of you is right. It’s important that women have no external barriers to their ambition and also and that they not hold themselves back with internal barriers. But as Molly says, “There are so many ways to lead a suc¬cess¬ful life, and they don’t all involve run¬ning a company.”

    Over the course of a lifetime, or of a working life, a woman might reinvent herself several times. Even if her present successful life doesn’t involve being in the C-suite, there’s a wild and crazy possibility that someday she may want to run a company, or start her own. And the Sheryl Sandbergs may after 15 or 20 years in that league choose to step into a quieter, less visible life.

    While temperament, which according to temperament theory is permanent, plays a big part in what makes us happy, many of us, over the course of our lives, find that doing new kinds of work makes us happy. There’s a lot to be said for variety, and many of us enjoy picking up whole new disciplines by changing up our work. It’s like grad school without the tuition bills.

    In my career as a life & career coach, I’ve seen women power up, down, and across, making appropriate changes for all kinds of reasons. It’s the transitions that are often the hardest, because our culture still expects people to have a single life-long career even though that’s no longer the norm, so when people need to make a change it’s often experienced as a failure or a crisis.

    Let’s not be too quick to label ourselves “C-Suite Types” or “Non-C-Suite-Types,” because needs, interests, and ambition levels can change over the course of a woman’s lifetime.

    • I’m not backing one model or the other (at least not here) — what I’m saying is that we need to recognize that not everyone’s path looks the same. There are points in the book where Sheryl Sandberg takes that position — but there are also places where she defines “leadership” far more narrowly. This piece is really my reflections on that confusion, not me vs. her.

      In any case, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. I am sorry she did not stick to what was the original intended audience. I think you are right that she had to expand the audience and the message in order to have a best seller. The book was not as powerful as her TED talk, which was aimed at that 10% of highly ambitious talented women who wanted to win the men’s game in finance, tech, law, etc. I see around me many young, brilliant and talented women in my field (banking) who are losing ground because they are overlooked by senior management (most of whom, because of the payscale and hours demanded, have stay at home wives) and also subtly sabotaging their careers in the ways that Sandberg describes.

    While climbing to the top of an investment bank does not equate to a meaningful or successful life for everybody, I think we need to care about elite women and get them into leadership positions in the corporate world as well as other arenas. I have met many women villains in my Wall Street career, but I highly doubt we would have seen the same scale of catastrophe in 2008 if we’d had more diversity of views among the risk takers and risk managers.
    I am sorry Sandberg did not write *that* book, and that we still don’t have women in the C Suite in finance.

    • Thanks for the reminder that the messages can be important ones even if the whole thing got sort of messed up in the packaging. I definitely got some good pointers–but also found myself so baffled & frustrated by the confusion around what she was trying to say & to whom. There was a lot more I couldn’t manage to fit in this piece — including her use of the word “we” in ways that kept making me think. If by “we” you mean “you,” well, okay, but if by “we” you mean me + you — you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  8. Amen, sister. There are so many ways to lead a successful life, and they don’t all involve running a company. I personally have found that life-work balance is way more important to me than making a lot of money or having a powerful position at work.

    I agree with you that “look within” resonates much more with me than “lean in” (whatever that means).

    • Thanks so much, Molly! Glad you liked the post. I do think that “leaning in” has some application to people like us, but it takes some extrapolating. I’ll probably write something about that before (finally) letting the lean in thing go.

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