Lean In is a business and self help book that focuses on the lack of women in leadership roles, the causes of this, and what we- particularly as women- can do about it. Sheryl discusses the reasons for the lack of women at the top in business despite the equal number of women starting out in entry level and graduate roles. One aspect of women in work she does not deal with the history of the patriarchal structures of women in work, but does at least make this clear in the introduction that the book will not discuss this. Including this would have made a great addition to the book but it would have made the text a lot longer.
Instead, Lean In discusses the mindset of working women of today, and to a lesser extent men, and how that mindset contributes to holding women back at work. Lean In just stops short of stating, but certainly implies, the idea that women have internalized sexist ideas of women in work. Sheryl aims to change that, and to inspire and motivate women to succeed at work, through encouraging ambition at all stages of life, women mentoring other women, and the advantages of building partnerships with the men in your life. Sheryl has meticulous attention to detail and backs up her claims of sexism in the workplace with well-researched statistics, such as the gender pay gap and the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies.
One of the strengths of Lean In is that Sheryl makes use of the confessional technique popular today: occasionally relaying personal experiences to further illustrate her points. These anecdotes help her to seem relatable despite her privilege, and in turn strengthens the message of the book by implying that she is akin to the reader; your average ambitious woman. Sheryl also makes use of her own experiences to give concrete illustrations of prejudices and preconceptions she has faced as a female in a leadership role at the head of two tech giants; Google and Facebook.
Lean In is far from perfect and has been heavily criticised by many, including feminists and socialists, particularly on the grounds of intersectionality. Intersectionality in feminism focuses on the experiences of lower class women and women of colour, and the importance of recognising their experiences and giving them a platform equal to that of upper middle class white women. There is huge variety of women in work, e.g. working class women with two jobs, single mums, the difficulties those with disabilities or caring responsibilities face, or the plight of the many women being leaned on in order for other women to succeed at work (e.g. often non-white, underpaid nannies). Sheryl has been criticised for not addressing the experiences of both these groups, and that her advice in Lean In only addresses and is useful in the battle to resolve the problems middle class white women like herself, face in the workplace, and that her advice could actually adversely affect women who don’t fall into this category. These concerns are extremely valid and should be recognised, and put me off reading the book in the first place.
Lean In fails to address the experiences of single working mums, women working two jobs to support their families, divorced mums and ‘deadbeat dads’, the widowed, career changers, the pressures of supporting aging parents and a young family, mums of children with disabilities, or those facing prejudice as a working woman with a disability. However, we shouldn’t expect one book to address every aspect of the working woman’s life and be all things to all women. I would argue that if, in fact, we do expect this from Lean In, then this attitude is part of the problem successful women face. Women should be allowed to be individuals and be treated as such- a person with personality and flaws, not an object and symbol.
A further criticism of Lean In is that it sells the American dream that anyone can get to the top and that the success or failure of this rides on individual ambition. I briefly touched on this above when I mentioned the failure of Lean In to discuss the history of patriarchal structures of the workplace and how these can be deconstructed in order to achieve parity for all.
It is debatable, but I think unlikely, that a book like this could have come out of anywhere but America. Add together the American dream, the trend for self help books, a struggling economy and the leader of a social media giant and you get this book.
Despite these problems I really enjoyed Lean In; it was well researched and it was interesting reading Sandberg’s personal experiences at Facebook and Google. I do think Lean In raises some pertinent points; such as how both men and women can both fail to recognise our own gender based prejudices despite recognising it in other people, and how as women we often mentally leave work before we physically leave our jobs. If you’re interested in feminism, equality at work, or a women looking to succeed in business, I would really recommend this book. It won’t solve all your problems but it might make you think. Overall I would definitely recommend Lean In to people interested in increasing the amount of women in leadership roles in the workplace. I’d also recommend it to ambitious women in work, particularly those in entry level / graduate roles, job seekers, career changers and leaders, looking to find productive ways to assert their value in the workplace.