Last month, a blockbuster investigation by the New York Times detailed Facebook’s stumbles amid an onslaught of crises, including Sandberg’s efforts to distract from the fact that Russians were using the platform to try to influence the 2016 presidential election. The story left Sandberg’s long-cultivated image as a righteous feminist icon and relatable role model in shambles.
But the final, fatal blow to the Lean In brand was a brutally blunt dismissal from Michelle Obama: “I tell women, that whole ‘you can have it all’ — nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie,” Obama told a sold-out crowd at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn during a Dec. 1 stop on a tour promoting her memoir. “It’s not always enough to lean in, because that s--- doesn’t work all the time.”
To the women who had fallen out of love with Lean In and the women who never loved it at all, these were resounding last words, received with relief and recognition.
“Oh, I was so happy,” says Minda Harts, founder of the Memo, an organization that supports women of color in the workplace. “I was so happy she used her platform to address this.”
“I nodded my head vigorously,” says Katherine Goldstein, a former Lean In evangelist and the host of a forthcoming podcast about working mothers titled “The Double Shift.”
“I laughed,” says Audrey Kingo, deputy editor of Working Mother magazine, where the themes of Lean In — work/life balance, ambition, workplace culture — are constant topics of coverage and conversation. “I feel like her words resonated with me in the same way they resonated with every person in that audience.”
“I thought, ‘Go, Michelle!’ ” says Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University who wrote about her frustration with Lean In in a 2014 essay for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post. “She was voicing what most women know.”
Five years ago, Sandberg described her book as a "sort-of feminist manifesto," and her words resonated far and wide. "Lean In" became entrenched in the vernacular, spawning a social movement that took off across the country and the world, with tens of thousands of Lean In "circles" of women who met regularly to discuss and implement Sandberg's guidance. The book itself offers a more nuanced look at the challenges women face, but Sandberg's message was often distilled to its simplified, can-do essence: If a woman works hard enough, and asserts herself enough, she can thrive at home and at work.
Critics were quick to question an approach that placed so much responsibility for success on individual women rather than the societal structures around them — the sort of advice that seemed tailor-made for a particular brand of ambitious, corporate go-getters bestowed with certain privileges. But it was widely embraced regardless; the book ranked on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year and has sold more than 4 million copies.
“I felt that the criticism at the time — that she didn’t speak to every woman’s circumstance — was valid,” says Goldstein, who was a driven, 20-something journalist in New York City at the time “Lean In” was published. “But I definitely felt like she spoke to my circumstance.”
Goldstein was especially inspired by one of Sandberg’s most popular mantras: Don’t leave before you leave, meaning women shouldn’t step back from their careers just because they anticipate building a family. Goldstein took that advice to heart and decided to take an exciting and demanding editing job even as she was trying to get pregnant.
“It felt like the kind of thing that doesn’t come around often, that you shouldn’t really turn down, and I knew I also wanted to become a mother soon,” she says, “but in my worldview that I had really bought into, all those things were going to be possible if I just didn’t hold myself back.”
But it didn’t play out that way. Goldstein, who wrote about her eventual disillusionment with Lean In in a recent essay for Vox, gave birth to a child who had health problems, and didn’t feel ready to go back to work when her 12-week maternity leave was over. She wound up losing her job soon after, “which completely challenged my sense of identity and self-worth as a professional,” she says. “And it wasn’t that I didn’t ‘lean in’ hard enough, it’s just that there were a number of really difficult life circumstances that really kind of pushed my career in directions I didn’t expect.”
Like Goldstein, Harts first greeted Sandberg’s book with a sense of excitement; at the time, she was a 33-year-old professional working at a consulting firm, and her male boss bought a copy for every member of their team.
“I thought, ‘Oh, good, maybe finally there’s a book that I can see myself in, what it’s like for women to have a seat at the table,’ ” Harts says. “But when I read the book, I felt empty afterward. . . . I was the only black woman in my office, so I was kind of in isolation feeling this way, there wasn’t anyone to talk to about this.”
Over the years that followed, she began to connect with other women of color who also wanted to talk about the book and the way it failed to address issues of race.
“And they said that they, too, were disappointed,” she says. “We thought that it would include us. You can’t talk about advancing women in the workplace if we’re not talking about all women. And women of color, we’ve been leaning in.”
In the wake of Obama’s comments — as a growing pileup of columns and thinkpieces assailed Sandberg and her Lean In legacy — Rachel Thomas, president and co-founder of LeanIn.org, wrote an op-ed for Fortune arguing that Sandberg’s message was often reduced and misrepresented.
“One of the strengths of Lean In is the title, so catchy it instantly became part of the lexicon,” Thomas wrote. “But that strength is also a weakness. In the six years since the book came out, the phrase ‘lean in’ has been used to mean many things — some of them very far from what Sheryl intended.”
In a statement to The Post, Thomas added that the foundation — which was formed in 2013 to advocate for gender equality — was “thriving” with Sandberg’s guidance and support and has more than 41,000 Lean In circles in 170 countries.
“We’ve built one of the largest communities of women who meet regularly in the world,” she said. “We conduct the largest study of the barriers women face in the workplace, especially women of color. And we run programs that raise awareness of issues critical to advancing women, from gender bias to equal pay.”
Still, certain aspects of Sandberg’s self-empowerment philosophy haven’t aged well: Research shows that pervasive issues— such as gender-based pay inequality, the disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities on women, and the number of U.S. companies offering paid family leave — remain largely unchanged. The #MeToo movement exposed additional institutional roadblocks faced by working women and mothers, problems that “leaning in” alone can’t fix.
“We’re just in a moment culturally where we’re starting to say: Maybe it’s an underlying structure problem. Maybe it’s not just about a mom working as hard as she can or a person of color working as hard as they can,” said Kingo, the deputy editor of Working Mother magazine. “I think basically what we’ve learned is that Lean In hasn’t worked.”
Even Sandberg herself has acknowledged that her efforts haven’t been enough to usher in an era of equality, with women rising to the top en masse.
“In terms of women in leadership roles, we are not better off,” she told USA Today last year. “We are not seeing a major increase in female leadership in any industry or in any government in the world, and I think that’s a shame.”
The fall of Lean In
might have been a long time coming — but if it takes one cultural icon to topple another, Obama's words felt like the decisive end of a chapter.
“When you have someone like Michelle Obama shining a light on this, people listen,” Harts says.
Whether Obama’s comments mark an end of one conversation or the beginning of another or at least a pivot — Brooks hopes that now, maybe, there might be more space to focus on the true roots of gender inequality at work and at home.
“I think that the shift in the conversation to talking about the responsibility that men have to change this is really important and overdue,” Brooks says. “And the shift more broadly just from the onus being on the individual, to recognizing that these are collective problems, and they need collective solutions.”
Goldstein wants to talk more about the underlying bias that affects workingwomen.
“I think that some of the Lean In stuff allows women to internalize their discrimination and say, ‘I must not have handled these situations right, and that’s why I was passed over for the promotion or wasn’t called for a job interview,’ ” she says. “So I’m really hoping that the post-Lean In moment is really an awakening to women and mothers, to our shared struggle of discrimination in the workplace, and not just saying, ‘Oh, if we had paid family leave, everything would be better.’ It’s so much more than that.”
In the end, Goldstein thinks there are aspects of Lean In that still hold value: the idea that women should advocate for themselves at work and at home, that they should negotiate unapologetically for better salaries and benefits, and champion their own projects and ideas. And as the former host of a Lean In circle, Goldstein thinks that women are stronger in a community.
“These are still valid ideas, and we’re seeing more of that feminism in group protests and in groups of women changing their workplace policies on behalf of everyone,” she says. “That’s the kind of feminism that I want to be part of.”
This story has been updated with a comment from the Lean In Foundation.