Stéphanie Thomson argues that, despite its flaws, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is an interesting guide to getting on in business that, above all, reignites debate


“Our revolution has stalled” says Sheryl Sandberg. Women earn on average significantly less than men; we occupy far fewer positions of power; we still shoulder the main burden of housework and childcare; we “compromise” our careers for partners and children. This, claims Sandberg in her recent book Lean In, has to change. As with most revolutions, hers has not been without its critics. Never one to be put off by a bit of controversy (quite the opposite), it was with relish that I started to read what Sandberg describes as her “sort of feminist manifesto”.

Lean In begins with a simple observation: “Men still run the world.” Despite all the progress made, the political, economic and business elite is still, on the whole, an old boys’ club. For Sandberg, changing this involves breaking down not only external barriers, but also the internal barriers within us: those little things we do (or don’t do) that hold us back, stop us from getting the pay rise, promotion or dream job. Far from ignoring the institutional barriers that exist, Sandberg recognises them but instead chooses to focus on the things women can do right now: “We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today.”

What follows is an insider’s guide to the rules of the game, in the hope that by understanding them and adapting our behaviour based on them, we can work them to our advantage. If this all sounds like a bad throw-back to the era of power suits and shoulder pads, Sandberg is quick to defend herself: “I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations. My hope, of course, is that we won’t have to play by these archaic rules forever and that eventually we can just be ourselves.” Indeed, the central argument of the book is that once more women are in positions of power, those women will transform the world of work for women on every rung of the ladder. Change at the top, she claims, will trickle down to all of us at the bottom.

I too tone down my natural “bossy” side for fear of being disliked in the workplace; I have hesitated to apply for promotions, sure that I didn’t have what it would take, and consistently underestimate my abilities

The book mixes data, statistics and facts with anecdotes and tales from Sandberg’s experience helping to run some of the most high-profile companies in the world. Never one to be defined by my gender, I was embarrassed to admit that I saw a great deal of my work-related behaviour in her stories. I too tone down my natural “bossy” side for fear of being disliked in the workplace; I have hesitated to apply for promotions, sure that I didn’t have what it would take, and consistently underestimate my abilities (apparently there’s a technical term: “Imposter Syndrome”); I’ve also always hated “selling myself”, worried that it would make me sound obnoxious.

Well, according to Lean In , the key to succeeding in your career is doing all the things that we were taught as girls not to do: blowing your own trumpet, taking risks, being bossy. Throughout the book, Sandberg calls on women to overcome these culturally-reinforced barriers within us, to be bold and ambitious, to “lean in” to our careers and aspire to be the best at whatever it is we do. The message is upbeat and pragmatic (perhaps rather more realist than revolutionary, it turns out), providing plenty of practical tips along the way.

At some points, Sandberg risks running on the condescending side. One chapter, “Are you my mentor?”, is particularly so, as she describes women’s desperate and pathetic-sounding attempts to bag a mentor — something she refers to as the “professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming”. I cringed my whole way through that part of the book, not because I recognised any of the behaviour in either myself or other women I know, but because of how patronising its tone was. Apparently Sandberg hates it when young women ask her to be their mentor: “a total mood killer”. Now you know. Regardless of this, Lean In provides a unique — and female — glimpse into the world of work, an ambitious project which few woman of her standing have done before.

It is naive it is to think that those who fight their way to the top will rewrite the rules to help those below them

So where do the criticisms come in? Columnists, commentators and academics — for the most part women — have had plenty to say about what they see as the more problematic aspects of the book.

Some of these observations seem fair. As Bryce Covert writes in Forbes, the central argument of Lean In— that more women at the top will automatically lead to better conditions for women everywhere — is great in theory, but is “incredibly flawed”. It is naive to think that those who fight their way to the top will rewrite the rules to help those below them. Think Napoleon in Orwell’s 1984. The book has also been accused of victim-blaming, ignoring the institutional barriers that still exist, with this sitting alongside criticisms of some of the advice Sandberg gave in videotaped talks back in 2010: “By putting even more pressure on women to succeed, was she, even unintentionally, blaming the victim if they did not?”

Some of the criticisms veer into more fraught and complex territory. According to several critics, Lean In only covers half the story. “Where are women like the domestic workers in Sandberg’s vision?” asks Melissa Gira Grant. And what about women of colour? “Nowhere does Sandberg take into consideration the unique challenges that women of colour face”, says Trudy Bourgeois. Expecting one book to cover so many issues seems like a lot to ask. It could also be said that the same lofty standards would never be applied to a business book written by one of Sandberg’s male counterparts: “No book speaks to everyone, and leadership tomes by wildly successful male executives aren’t typically pilloried for ignoring the concerns of immigrant day workers”, writes Michelle Goldberg. At the close of the book, Sandberg tells us that when preparing it, Oprah reminded her of the “power of being authentic”. Lean In‘s authenticity is its strength. Indeed, there’s an argument that attempting to fully address a range of intersecting issues such as race and class would become an unwieldy task and risk the book losing credibility and focus.

An article in the Washington Post describes Lean In as a “vanity project”

Some of the criticisms of Sandberg seem to border on becoming personal attacks. For example, an article in the Washington Post describes Lean In as a “vanity project”; writing in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd accuses Sandberg of hijacking the “vocabulary and romance of a social movement, not to sell a cause, but herself.” This is arguably a depressing, yet predictable, reaction to the book. As Michelle Goldberg says, “One would think [Sandberg] was peddling a multilevel marketing scheme, not the most overtly feminist mainstream business book ever written.” She continues:

“Her message isn’t that all women need to be corporate executives or high-powered lawyers or political leaders. It’s that we’d be better off if more corporate executives, high-powered lawyers, and political leaders were women.”

What Lean In has done, above all else, is reignite a debate. In recent years, women have started to feel detached from the feminist movement, with many shunning the label completely (including other high-powered women such as Sandberg’s former colleague Marissa Mayer). In the closing chapter of Lean In, Sandberg writes that her “goal is that this book is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning”. Despite any flaws, Lean In has certainly achieved that.

The editor has modified this article on 13/11/13 for grammatical errors. The original title was “Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In” and has been changed to better reflect the author’s argument.