In general I don’t read self help books. Or leadership books. Basically, I don’t like being told what to do. And definitely not by someone I have never met who thinks they are better than me and is being paid to tell me so. I also don’t like doing ‘women’ things. Women’s groups, leadership bodies etc. make me itchy. I don’t like being defined by being a woman.
So, the fact I read ‘Lean In’ at all is a bloody miracle. And to be honest, I only read it because the review in Time Magazine told me that it was controversial, and controversial I enjoy. But, well, it wasn’t really – at least to me. In some ways it was less than I hoped, but looking back at it, it has made me think, and talk, which I guess was the point of Sandberg writing it in the first place (well, that and the money and the desire to tell me she is better than me).
I get why it might make some people angry. If you were being lazy it could be classified as a ‘women who hate women’ book. Sandberg does repeatedly mention that women’s lack of success in bridging many of the gender employment differentiators (wage, hierarchy etc.) is often their own fault; which could be taken that way. But she also goes to great lengths to explain why there are other factors at play which stop many women reaching the levels many men have.
I can also see why this book may make you angry if you are a mother who chose to stay at home. Sandberg battles very hard to argue that this book is ‘pro choice.’ She claims women can’t have everything, but they should be able to have anything. However, throughout, you can’t help but note a tone of judgement for those who have ‘chosen’ to stay at home. At one point, she basically argues that without more women in business, we won’t have more women leaders, ipso facto women who stay at home are helping to maintain the status quo. “We have to ask ourselves if we have become so focussed on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership”, she concludes. And although she talks a lot about working mother’s guilt, she carefully provides evidence that children who are not cared for by a parent develop just as healthily as those who are.
Finally, this book may frustrate you because it appears Sandberg has more freedom than most. She earns far, far, more than most people, and has a supportive husband with a flexible job. And Sandberg repeatedly acknowledges this. But I would argue that, to some extent, both are a result of choices she has made, a result of her ‘leaning in’ and defining acceptable boundaries, as she discusses in the book. Clearly, there are also elements of the ‘accident of birth’, luck etc. but I am loathe to allow her to write herself off as simply being more fortunate than others.
The ‘leaning in’ which is the books title is probably its strongest section. In this chapter, Sandberg argues that women often make poor choices – they lean out. They don’t take a promotion, long before they want children, because in the future they want children and they think this role and that aspiration may be incompatible. They sit at the side in a big meeting, afraid to ‘take a seat at the table’. Or they don’t return to work after having children, arguing work only pays childcare costs and not appreciating that in the long term, once back in work, they will gradually earn more. I think she has a point here. I have very few female friends who at some point haven’t raised the spectre of how they participate in a big meeting or the issue of work / life balance once they have kids, and I have taken part in many conversations about how roles would work with children, even though very few of my friends actually have children.
She also has a point about women’s need to be liked, and how that isn’t always compatible with being successful – though that isn’t a new point. And she notes that studies have shown that successful women are far more rarely well-liked than successful men, as if somehow women, success and likeability are deemed incompatible. This is something I have seen, but I think it is far less true for women of my generation than for women of previous generations who, arguably tried (often unsuccessfully) to be ‘more like men’ in order to succeed in the workplace.
Importantly, Sandberg points out that success at work is often about creating boundaries, being clear about what’s possible and what isn’t. “The best way to make room for both life and career is to make limits and to stick to them.” She stresses that being busy, and always being at work, is often perceived as the only route to the top. But, she claims, women have a responsibility to their co-workers and particularly other women, to show that what is important is getting the job done, and done well, not the hours you put in. “Every job will demand some sacrifice. The key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice”, she explains.
Finally, Sandberg uses two definitions which I plan to adopt in my own life.
Firstly, her definition of leadership: “leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” I want to spend more time thinking about whether I do this (particularly in my absence) and how I can ensure I do it more.
And secondly, her definition of success: “success is making the best choices we can… and accepting them.” For some, the deciding is hard, for others the accepting (I fall in the latter category) but I think the combination of the two is the route to a happy life.
In sum, I liked this book less than I was hoping, but more than I was expecting. It didn’t delve as deep into issues as I would like, was often too defensive and sometimes slightly dated feeling. But it did raise issues which, although possibly declining (though I am sure Sandberg would disagree) are still pertinent for women of my generation. And, if the test of a book is how often you discuss it with others, I have to regard this one as quite the success.