Will to power
Lean in: Women, work and the will to lead by Sheryl Sandberg (HarperCollins; hardback: $49; Kindle edition: $US13.03)
It electrified me when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered her 2010 TedTalk, ‘Why we have too few women leaders’ – even as someone in her last year at university, who thought she was years away from worrying about balancing her career with a family.
Fast-forward three years, and I was excited to see whether Lean In (essentially, that TedTalk expanded into a book) would galvanise me in the same way.
Especially now I actually had the seeds of a career sown, and some practical workplace experience to which I could apply whatever Sandberg was going to teach me.
ABOVE: Sandberg's 2010 TedTalk: Career women lean back after merely deciding to have kids. "They should keep their foot on the gas pedal."
The first thing Sandberg taught me is that it’s hard to review a book when the book itself resists categorisation.
Within the first ten pages, the executive rated 10th most powerful woman in the world denies that Lean In: Women, work, and the will to lead is a memoir, a self-help book, a book on ‘career management’, or a feminist manifesto.
This was a troubling development for your reviewer, who was hoping to have some sort of easily-discernible yardstick by which to assess the work. Luckily for me, Sandberg does concede Lean In is ‘a sort-of feminist manifesto’, which is at best a win for the sisterhood and at worst blindingly obvious.
The three cornerstones of the 2010 TEDTalk – ‘sit at the table’, ‘don’t leave before you leave’, and ‘make your partner a real partner’ – all show up in Lean In as full chapters, and they are still the strongest points Sandberg has to make. Pleasingly, there is also a book’s worth of new material – this isn’t an exercise in padding out and re-hashing.
Of course, a book written by an extremely successful woman about how other women can be successful, but which also (sort-of) denies being a feminist manifesto will inevitably raise feminists’ eyebrows. This kind of caveat is irritatingly prevalent in interviews with or works by prominent women. It is meant to make these women more attractive to those who reject feminism as archaic, unattractive, or irrelevant. But it also serves to alienate those who identify as or with feminists. As a woman in the latter category, I can’t help but be disappointed that someone in Sandberg’s position feels she needs to hedge her bets by distancing herself from the ‘feminist’ tag – particularly in a book whose message is so clearly aligned with the basic tenets of modern feminism.
Despite the subtitle – Women, work, and the will to lead – many of the heavyweights who provide the blurbs for Lean in’s cover make sure to point out that being a woman is not in fact a prerequisite to reading a book written about them. Their open-mindedness is pleasing, although I have to admit that something irks me about Mark Zuckerberg’s exhortations that Lean In will help especially men to become ‘better and more effective leaders.’ It rather seems as though he’s missed the point (or hasn’t read the subtitle). Sandberg writes that she wants men as well as women to read Lean In in order that they can become better partners in the struggle for equality. However, the cynic in me is convinced it has more to do with not limiting her potential market.
I am open-minded though, and with all the emphasis on how this book about women would also be invaluable to men, I thought a diligent reviewer should test the hypothesis. Sandberg includes, on the topic of women (and men!) knowing their self-worth, an anecdote about lawyers. The anecdote goes thus: One lawyer, or type of lawyer, bills all the time he spends thinking about the client, ‘even in the shower’. The other sort of lawyer bills only her productive time, and self-discounts when she is ‘not at [her] best’, and for other perceived disadvantages. Which lawyer is more valuable to the firm? (Pro tip: the one whose billable hours are greater).
I am not a practising lawyer, but I do bill my time, so this anecdote was illustrative to me. I read it out loud, without comment, to a friend who is a) a man and b) a lawyer. He listened and nodded with interest. Heartened, I pushed my luck by reading several other paragraphs to him, and was eventually rewarded with a polite request to be more selective in choosing when to bother him. I chalk this up to a tentative win for co-ed appeal.
For New Zealand-based readers, Lean In is surprisingly comforting.
I began reading ready to work up a good old-fashioned feminist rage; however New Zealand is cited throughout the book as a bastion of equality and progress, in contrast to the US (and occasionally Europe).
New Zealand-based newspapers, political parties, and interest groups often remind us that New Zealand women earn approximately 93 cents for every dollar earned by a man. This old chestnut shows up early on in Lean In; but it really doesn’t look nearly half as bad next to the 77 cents American woman get (for clarity: it is still bad).
I began Lean In hoping to learn some new facts to have up my sleeve about the plight of working women.
Unfortunately for me, if I use the ones I learned from Sheryl Sandberg, I’m either going to have to talk solely about American women, or start arguing that New Zealand women don’t have it that bad after all (unlikely).
Sandberg has little to offer women who don’t already have a tertiary education; a network of contacts; and a comfortably middle-class lifestyle. As the book is largely built on her personal experience, this is not entirely unexpected. It does mean though, that when she refers to ‘women’, she in fact means only a very limited type of woman.
Lean In is worth the time for any of those particular women. It will also be an interesting read for any man who cares for, or works with, professional women. If you’re unsure, watch the TEDTalk. If you’re still interested at the end, Lean In is for you.
Alexandra Tunnicliffe is a tax consultant at a professional services firm in Auckland. The views and opinions expressed above are those of the reviewer in her personal capacity and do not represent the views and opinions of her employer.