Review: Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ is full of good intentions but rife with contradictions

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist in Cleveland and the author of “. . . And His Lovely Wife.”

To have a meaningful discussion about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, let’s acknowledge its flaws and move on to what she gets right.

Sandberg is the Harvard-educated chief operating officer of Facebook and a self-avowed feminist who wants to transform the role of women in the workplace. She is also incredibly wealthy — reportedly worth hundreds of millions — and is too often tone-deaf to her voice of privilege. This makes it hard to close the distance between lucky her and the women who could most benefit from her advocacy. It’s a problem that plays out time and again in “Lean In.”

(Knopf) - ”Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg

More on this story

The egos and nerds behind Twitter’s success

The egos and nerds behind Twitter’s success

“Hatching Twitter” tells the story of the company’s scheming founders.

The Worst Year in Washington?

The Worst Year in Washington?

A look at Obama’s squandered legacy, the GOP’s intransigence and RGIII’s fall from grace.

Like Pope Francis?

Like Pope Francis?

You’ll love Jesus.

[Make Your Case: Is Sheryl Sandberg good for feminism? Readers weigh in. >>]

In high school, Sandberg was voted “most likely to succeed” but asked a yearbook friend to delete it so she’d have a date to the prom. She was the only woman in her class to win a Harvard Business School award but, unlike the male recipients, felt compelled to keep her success a secret. She was “horrified” and “embarrassed” that Forbes magazine listed her as the fifth-most-powerful woman in the world, ahead of Michelle Obama.

By the time she describes the pangs of guilt as a mother working outside the home — some of her most poignant passages — it is impossible to forget that she, like many of the female friends she quotes, is a wealthy, white, married woman with a “vast support system.” Surely she could have included a story or two about successful women who are more likely to have been born to nannies than to hire them. Or at least more who didn’t graduate from the Ivy League.

Sandberg barely mentions the millions of single mothers in the workplace. She does, however, advise women on how to find a supportive spouse — who, in her book, is almost always male. Ambitious lesbians will have to find their tutorial elsewhere. “When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys,” Sandberg writes. “But do not marry them.”

So, how to find the right guy? Sandberg turns to Kristina Salen, an executive with Fidelity who devised a two-tiered test to determine whether a boyfriend would support her career. First, Salen canceled a date because of work. If the guy kept his cool, she proceeded to test No. 2: Was he willing to join her on a work trip — to Sao Paulo, Brazil? That’ll weed out the losers, not to mention most men on the planet.

Sandberg encourages women to act more like men. She quotes her longtime mentor Larry Summers, who once advised his tax lawyer wife, Vicki, to “bill like a boy.” “His view was that the men considered any time they spent thinking about an issue — even time in the shower — as billable hours,” Sandberg writes. “His wife and her female colleagues, however, would decide that they were not at their best on a given day and discount hours they spent at their desks to be fair to the client.”

Sandberg asks: “Which lawyers were more valuable to their firm?”

My question: When did personal integrity become a character flaw?

At 172 pages of text, “Lean In” is a short book, much of it a rehash of Sandberg’s 2010TED Talk titled “Why we have too few women leaders.” The video of that talk went viral, catapulting Sandberg into the fray of feminist debate. Her critics say she heaps too much blame on women, but that is too simplistic. At 43, Sandberg is young enough to remember the youthful confidence of her generation of women and old enough to see how it has withered since graduation. They were equal competitors with men in college. Not so in their careers.

“The world has not evolved nearly as much as I believed it would. All but one of my male classmates work in professional settings. . . . In comparison to their male counterparts, highly trained women are scaling back and dropping out of the workforce in high numbers. In turn, these diverging percentages teach institutions and mentors to invest more in men, who are statistically more likely to stay.”

Except for two surveys — of Harvard and Yale alumni — Sandberg relies mostly on anecdotal evidence to argue that too many women fall behind in their careers because of their own bad choices. Any mother who works outside the home, however, will recognize the tensions she describes.

The problem, in Sandberg’s view: Women make incremental decisions based on future plans for a family, which chips away at their career options.

Her solution: Don’t leave before you leave.

For example: “A law associate might decide not to shoot for partner because someday she hopes to have a family. A teacher might pass on leading curriculum development for her school. A sales representative might take a smaller territory or not apply for a management role. Often without even realizing it, the woman stops reaching for new opportunities.”

Sandberg is careful to pay tribute to women who sideline careers for children, but her warning is clear: If you do it too soon, there’s no turning back. “The time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives — not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.”

As she points out, the cost of day care for two children “is greater than the annual median rent payment in every state in the country.” Even so, paying for it could be a way of “investing in their families’ future.”

“Lean In” reads like a book that was written too soon. Sandberg is thinking out loud, bouncing from idea to idea, full of good intentions but bubbling with contradictions: Stand up for yourself, but don’t tick off the boss. Seek help from more experienced women, but don’t ask for a mentor. Make your husband a real partner, but don’t tell him how to do it. “Let him put the diaper on the baby anyway he wants to as long as he’s doing it himself,” she writes. “And if he gets up to deal with the diaper before being asked, she should smile even if he puts that diaper on the baby’s head.”

That sounds like a prescription for how to lean in until you collapse from exhaustion. Still, I plan to buy this book for our three grown daughters and daughter-in-law, and here’s why: To borrow from one of Sandberg’s favorite quotations, “Done is better than perfect.” For all its imperfections, “Lean In” has the potential to be an important book if a wider range of women than those reflected in its pages start hashing out Sandberg’s best ideas. In our family, and in families across the country, may the conversations begin.

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist in Cleveland and the author of “. . . And His Lovely Wife.”

LEAN IN

Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

By Sheryl Sandberg

Knopf. 228 pp. $24.95

 
Read what others are saying