“Lean In”, Sheryl Sandberg: Gender and Career

the cover image of lean in by facebook coo sheryl sandberg
Lean In, by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, is a discussion of how gender affects today’s white-collar workplace, particularly with regard to women. Sandberg draws upon her own experiences, her conversations with other professionals, and a vast body of research, to explore the many dynamics affecting working men and women. Lean In is an excellent read which makes many great points and would be a worthy addition to any bookshelf, particularly one sitting behind a desk in a corner office. I found three things of particular note to be the examination of internal barriers, the use of stories, and the attention given to class.

Think blokely, act locally

In Lean In, Sandberg talks about how women make life harder for themselves and other women. As well as acting against external barriers, she encourages women to identify and overcome these “internal barriers”. “[We] Women”, she writes, “are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves”.

We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve….Compared to male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions.

Is it more important tearing down these barriers than those “erected by society”? Sandberg rejects the question, describing it as “the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation.” “Let’s agree”, she suggests, “to wage battle on both fronts.”

This approach is empowering. It starts by recognising that many of us collaborators when it comes to the patriarchy, because it’s hard to avoid perpetuating the system that has shaped us. “Often without realising it,” notes Sandberg, “women internalize disparaging cultural attitudes and then echo them back. As a result, women are not just victims of sexism, they can also be perpetrators.” Men are of course also complicit. This sucks. But, acknowledging this puts the patriarchy within one’s own sphere of influence, making it something that every women or man can begin to act against. This is why Sandberg feels these internal barriers “deserve a lot more attention”, “…because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today.” Lean In starts with the proposition that, with regard to gender, women aren’t just acted upon, they also act. By considering how internal barriers are part of the framework of patriarchy, Sandberg gives the reader the option to begin to create change just by being aware of and moderating their own internal inclinations.

Shared experience

One of the challenges in understanding oppression is the boundaries of experience. Because my ‘normal’ is what is normal for me, male privilege is normal for me. Because a woman’s ‘normal’ is built around here experience, her normal includes her experiences of oppression. This makes it harder for men and women to see privilege and oppression in action – after all, this is what the(ir) world is like. Points out Sandberg, “Men at the top are often unaware of the benefits they enjoy simply because they’re men, and this can make them blind to the disadvantages associated with being a woman.”

Statistics can help us to think outside of our own experience but they are still impersonal and not affective. Also, human brains stubbornly reject facts that don’t fit their worldview. I think sharing personal stories is a better option for breaking outside the boundaries of individual experience. It’s one thing, after all, to hear that one in three women experience sexual or physical violence. It’s another thing altogether to hear from a female friend how she can’t go out to certain places because of how others act, or from another how she is too afraid to walk or ride home in the dark. The statistic ‘one in three’ means less than the single one – the one you know who was raped by her partner or sexually harassed by her manager.

Lean In isn’t a book about gendered violence, but it is a book about gendered oppression, and it makes excellent use of personal stories. Sandberg begins by talking about the difficulties of being pregnant while working at Google, and talks throughout the book about coming up with her own schedule, negotiating family arrangements with her husband, and using a breast-pump during teleconferences. She tells tales of the oppression she has experienced and how, in some cases, she acted against it. Sharing the stories of many, many other professional, high-powered women, Sandberg paints a picture of a phenomenon that is bigger than any single woman or any single statistic. In doing so she unmasks gender in the workplace, depicting the injust situation women face more affectively and more impressively than through the use of statistics alone.

At the head of the class

Writing as a professional, well-educated woman, Sandberg was at risk of completely neglecting the plight of women whose dilemma isn’t ‘how can I have children and a career?’ but ‘what will my children eat this week?’. There’s a definitely an unfair gap between women and men – but there’s also a hell of gap between the rich and the poor. While US women might get 77 cents for every dollar US men make, Australian households in the poorest 20% earn 40 cents for every dollar earned by Australian households in the top 20%. This would seem to suggest you’re economically better off being a typical woman than a typical poor person.

Thankfully, Sandberg does give some attention to this. It’s certainly not at the heart of her book, but, fair enough, it’s a book for career-minded women, not feminist-minded Socialists. Part of her argument for having more women in power is that this will create a more equitable society overall: “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” She also nods to the economic and educational privilege that has enabled her to oppose the gendered discrimination she faced, acknowledging that “most women are not focused on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day.” “We most raise both the ceiling…” she writes, “and the floor.” While I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that “more women in power” will improve conditions for poor women in western countries, or poor women in the majority world, it’s good to see that Sandberg has considered this and thought herself about what might be done.

Gleaning In

Lean In is a wonderful book. It’s an accessible and broad introduction to a discussion that is potentially quite radical and challenging. Reading it over a couple of days has provoked me many times to think about the many inspirational women I know, and to consider the barriers they’ve had to overcome, to think about how gender has manifested itself in workplaces I’ve experienced, and to think about how it has acted upon me or through me. Lean In is powerful work that empowers women to overcome the internal barriers to their own success, that illuminates the discrimination faced by many professional women and the methods they’ve used to adapt, and that acknowledges the intricacies of privilege and oppression in a global society. Sandberg has achieved something great with this text.

3 Responses to ““Lean In”, Sheryl Sandberg: Gender and Career”

  1. This take on Sandberg’s brand of feminism left me feeling a little disconcerted… for an interesting other perspective on Sandberg and her potentially pernicious politics, I found this article articulated my concerns very well… http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/linda-burnham/1-feminism

    • Thanks for the article suggestion. I think it’s a really important perspective to consider when reflecting on “Lean In”. I think you’re right to characterise Sandberg’s as a “brand” of Feminism, and I guess in that sense I wonder if there’s value in having such a brand available, even if it isn’t a brand that everybody wants to buy in to?

      I agree with Linda Burnham though about the risk of Sandberg’s brand taking up too much space:

      “Being clear about Sandberg’s brand surely wouldn’t matter much if the feminist movement were in better shape, represented by more varied voices and stronger organizations. Sandberg’s voice would be just one among many advocating different roads toward more equitable gender relations. But the fact that Sandberg has occupied so much space and is taken so seriously as the new voice of feminism is a sign of how intractably conservative the current political environment is. That’s all the more reason to reassert the social justice roots of feminism, and to make sure that it does not become synonymous with leaning in.”

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