Feminist Book Club: Lean In

Welcome to a brand new series: Feminist Book Club! Whenever we read something that piques our feminist interest, you can read our thoughts about it here. And if you’ve thumbed a gynocentric great recently, why not write us a guest review?

This week, FBC brings you Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg (whose famous TEDtalk on women in leadership you can watch here). First published in 2013, Sandberg’s autobiographical manifesto is a blend of personal aphorisms, top feminist quotes and anecdotes, and well-wrought statistics.

lean in

On a first glance, I wasn’t sure Lean In was going to be the kind of book I was into, being mainly about women in business. With chapter headings such as “The Leadership Ambition Gap” and “Success and Likeability”, I wasn’t convinced what Sandberg had to say would really apply to my day-to-day school life. However, the atmospheres that Sandberg describes, and the ways she suggests handling them, definitely hold ground outside the City, whether within the workplace or within the home.

Why did she make the issue of female leadership within the workplace her “thing”? Sandberg was once asked. “I made this my “thing”,” she says, “because we need to disrupt the status quo.” It took her a while, as it did with me, to label herself a “feminist”, for fear of being seen as a bra-burning man-hating bore. She reasons that her generation stalled in its feminism, having seen the progress the second wave that had come before them had made. Sandberg and Harvard classmates reasoned that gender equality had been attained, and only realised, little by little, that there was still a long way to go. “Knowing that things could be worse,” she writes, “should not stop us from trying to make them better.”

Throughout, Sandberg talks about the way our language puts women down. Whilst this is endemic in the workplace (with the unnecessary adjective “female” often preceding certain professions, such as “female CEO” or “female pilot”), she writes that this stems from the semantics with which we bring up our children. She notes how she was called “bossy” growing up, and knowing that this was “not a compliment”. Having often been called “demanding” by my family (who, in all other cases, are a wholly supportive bunch) for knowing what I like and liking what I know, and for refusing to settle, I too know this is not a compliment. My brother has never been called “demanding” at home, because it is societally expected that a man demands things, and that he receives them.  She adds that “we internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.” Similarly, whenever I act without too much care for what people think (for instance, on the living room rug, legs akimbo, farting), I’m constantly told, “That’s not very ladylike.” I really couldn’t give a toss what is “ladylike”, because I can tell you for a fact that if my brother did the same, yes, he would be told that that’s disgusting, but he sure as hell wouldn’t be told it’s not appropriate for his gender.


Sheryl smashing that partiarchal language

Sandberg comments throughout the book on the essentiality of men supporting women. Citing several of her previous employers, colleagues and mentors, as well as her husband Dave Goldberg, as key example of this, she constantly brings men back, where they should be, into the feminism debate. She urges men to think about their workplace attitudes and to pull their weight at home, to create truly 50/50 companies and marriages. In addition, she acknowledges that women don’t always support women, noting how she has received the cold shoulder from competitive colleagues, or cruel remarks from judgmental non-working mothers. I wholly agree with her when she says that, “Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.” Gender equality will only be a reality when we have all men and all women onboard.

The tricky topic of gender equality within the workplace is one that we have touched on before. Sandberg writes, “I know it isn’t easy. Anyone who brings up gender in the workplace is wading into deep and muddy waters. The subject itself presents a paradox, forcing us to acknowledge differences while trying to achieve the goal of being treated the same.” Her advice? Be frank with your colleagues and employers when you feel let down by the environment: communication is key. Furthermore, allow them to see the side of you that can struggle with balancing working and family time. Talk about how it could be difficult taking a promotion with a child on the way, but reassert your rightness for the role.

When rising up the career ladder, Sandberg advises women to take risks, something we perhaps aren’t naturally attuned to do. Women suffer hugely, she argues, from “imposter syndrome” in the workplace: a feeling that you aren’t qualified enough, smart enough, capable enough, and that sooner or later, you’ll be found out, so it’s best just to keep a low profile. Stop feeling like a fraud, she advises: lean in, sit at the table, raise your hand and voice. “We consistently underestimate ourselves,” she says, and we must learn to “undistort the distortion” of how we perceive ourselves. Even when we are smart, she argues, we keep quiet about it. After all, being clever “doesn’t make you particularly popular or attractive to boys.” There’s a reason I don’t have “University of Cambridge” on my Tinder profile. We mute our achievements for fear of being disliked, but, conversely, Sandberg contests that, “owning one’s success is key to achieving more success.”


Sheryl says the career “ladder” is actually more of a “jungle gym”

Sandberg makes an interesting case for the marriage of “work” and “life”, stating that calling it a work/life balance makes it sound “as if the two were diametrically opposed.” Despite having earnt myself a tasty little Statistics GCSE back in 2006, I’ve never really been one for letting the data speak for itself, preferring to consider the physical or emotional realities beyond the percentages. But Sandberg compiles so many surveys, studies and questionnaires to support her arguments about workcare vs childcare (all detailed fully in an incredibly well-fleshed out Notes section) that it’s hard to counter her statements. One of the statistics I found most thought-provoking, not to mention encouraging for a twenty-first century workforce, came in response to her discussion of the impact working motherhood has on both child and parent. She states that the associated female guilt that comes with this, that the child may suffer from separation anxiety or may grow up intellectually or emotionally disadvantaged, is “based on emotion, not evidence”. The data shows that there is statistically no difference whatsoever between children brought up with full-time working mothers and those brought up with stay-at-home mothers.

A noteworthy chapter about the work/life dilemma is “Don’t Leave Before You Leave”. “Of all the ways women hold themselves back,” Sandberg writes, “perhaps the most pervasive is that they leave before they leave.” She goes on to tell an anecdote about an employee who was so worried about juggling motherhood and career development later on that she picked Sandberg’s brains about the topic before she even had a boyfriend, let alone a baby. I can recall a conversation I had many years ago with a neighbour who asked me what I wanted to do when I left school. I had a fully-formed answer for him: I was going to be a journalist until I had a family, and then I would become a teacher so I could have more family-friendly working hours. This was probably when I was 14 or 15 years old, and already I had it in my head that of course it would fall to me to schedule my career around my hypothetical husband and children. Even now, I think I’m guilty of doing this. During my time in Spain, which I have loved, and which has helped me develop on so many levels, I have caught myself wondering if it wasn’t time to move back to the UK to find a mate, to give me the right amount of time to reproduce before my tubes dried up. Which is beyond ridiculous, because no male equivalent here is thinking he should hurry up back to England to knock someone up and settle into domestic mundanity.

office baby

Don’t leave before you’ve left the womb

Sandberg acutely notes that, often, at the heart of these work/life predicaments, is an emotionality that seems to be unwelcome in the business market. “Fear is at the root of so many barriers women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.” Sandberg’s divorce left her feeling fearful of public embarrassment for being seen as a failure – she had failed at the “wife” role she was supposed to play, and was afraid this would make her seem like a “failure” in all aspects of her life. A nine-year-old asked me the other day in class where my boyfriend was. (At least, this is what he tried to say. Instead he said, and kudos for trying, “Where you “I love you”? Not I! For you!”) I couldn’t bring myself to tell him and his classmates that I didn’t have a boyfriend, despite being happily single for several years, for fear that they wouldn’t comprehend this, and think that I was some sort of English spinster. So I just said my boyfriend was in England (but clearly unconvincingly, as one of them did say in Spanish “Haha, she’s an old maid!”) Society has led that boy not to ask me, “Where were you educated?”, “What do you think about fracking?”, or “What are the difficulties of trying to become bilingual?” Instead, society has taught him that the immediate thing to find out about a woman in a position of responsibility is whether or not she’s getting fucked. So of course we respond with a certain degree of insecurity to that question when we’re not. Sandberg felt her divorce, like I felt my singledom in that moment, was “a massive personal and public failure”. It’s moments like this, insights into Sandberg’s personal sense of self, that make this book more than just a business how-to, but make it a really readable guide to navigating the difficulties of being privately female in a professionally male world.

Nevertheless, the book does have its downsides. It is clearly aimed at a narrow slice of women (middle-class, heteronormative, overwhelmingly white professionals) – though, to be fair, Sandberg acknowledges throughout that she is speaking to a minority of women, and acknowledges that that in itself is problematic. She often lays down quite heavy-handed heterogenous statements of “We need to…”, “Women must…”, “Women do X, women do Y”, at the same time as writing “no one should pass judgment of [the] highly personal decisions” that many women have to make in their home and professional lives. And whilst often calling men to arms, she also writes things such as, “[This book] is not a feminist manifesto – okay it is sort of a feminist manifesto, but one that I hope inspires men as much as it inspires women.” This sentence annoyed me. A) don’t write a feminist manifesto and then be ashamed to call it so, and B) everything from “but” onwards seems to me to be completely unnecessary – why shouldn’t men be inspired by a feminist manifesto, when all feminism is, as we have to parrot until we’re blue in the face, is the social equality of men and women?


May just get this tattooed on my head and be done with it

There are certain isolated moments throughout the book where I think she’s just a bit wrong. She tells a story of a friend of hers who “tested” her boyfriends to see if they were willing to be “equal partners” in the career and home, which I thought was just a bit mean. I’d rather not feel the need to “test” the people I love. Another alarm-bells moment for me is when she writes, “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.” Firstly, I’m not sure it’s a “decision”, secondly, even if it is, is it really the MOST IMPORTANT “career decision”? I feel like there are probably other more important career decisions, like “What career will I actually have?”, “How will I negotiate this request for a pay rise?”, and “Can I work somewhere that doesn’t have a plentiful supply of snacks to hand?”

Despite these niggles, it is an interesting piece of non-fiction. “I have written this book,” Sandberg writes in her final chapter, “to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential… If we push hard now, this next wave can be the last wave… We must keep going.” If nothing else, those inspirational words make this book well worth a read.


Until next month,




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