The woman of Sheryl Sandberg’s world is a timid creature. She’s smart but not savvy, ambitious but afraid to appear so, confident and driven but plagued by self-doubt. She’s wary of participating in meetings, wary of asking for promotions, wary of taking on new assignments. And don’t even get me started on motherhood—this woman has been ruminating on the work/life balance basically since she learned where babies come from.
For this woman, Sandberg has a wealth of advice, which in its entirety boils down to the central conceit of her book: Lean In. This woman—this hyper-sensitive, underutilized and challenge-averse woman—needs to stop sitting in the back row at meetings, stop taking flak from colleagues, and stop turning down opportunities because she’s unsure about her abilities. She needs to build organic and mutually beneficial relationships with coworkers, and worry less about being liked and more about being respected. She needs to speak her mind with colleagues and bosses, and if and when she decides to throw a bun in the oven, not start sacrificing her career the second she realizes she’s pregnant. She could also stand to snag an understanding, supporitve and equally driven husband, who won’t hesitate to pitch in on 50% of the child-rearing and housework. In short, Sheryl Sandberg wants this woman to sack up (which, incidentally, would have been a way better book title.)
Lean In is presented as a series of challenges women face in the workplace—everything from birthing a baby to bucking the lingering stigma associated with being an “ambitious female.” Using anecdotes from her own career, Sandberg outlines and empathizes with these struggles, pulling in outside research to quash the Wimpy Woman’s fear that she is the only one fighting these battles. And indeed, the data speaks for itself: A 2012 McKinsey survey found that 36% of the men wanted to reach the C-suite (CEO, COO, etc.) compared with 18% of women. Another study found that women only apply to jobs if they meet 100% of the criteria, versus 60% for men. At the top fifty colleges, fewer than a third of student government presidents are female. And so on and so forth. Statistically speaking, the gender gap is hard to ignore.
And yet. As a woman, I can’t deny that I had some knee-jerk reactions to Sandberg’s generalizations about how my gender behaves in the workplace. Maybe I’ve just been incredibly fortunate in my career—Sandberg has to this day never reported to a woman; in six years, I’ve reported to three—or maybe I’m in denial. Maybe these issues become more pronounced at a higher level, i.e. on the 10th floor it’s all “gender schmender,” but take the elevator to 35 and men are still running things. Maybe — probably — it’s all of the above.
Of course Sandberg points out that women struggle with these issues disproportionately, not because of their “nature” but because of society’s expectations of them. Women aren’t supposed to be aggressive, or forthright, or ambitious. And when one does manage to shimmy her way up the corporate ladder, she never quite sheds the gender identifier (in a poignant moment, Sandberg points out that a Google search for “Facebook’s male CEO” turns up zero results. “Facebook’s female COO” turns up over 400.) So how is one supposed to be a driven, confident and successful woman, without alienating those who subscribe (intentionally or not) to outdated gender stereotypes? Lean In is part answer to that question, and part “Really ladies, who gives a shit?”