Sheryl Sandberg’s Book: Early Reviews

Last month, we blogged about the debate surrounding Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In, her book about empowering female workers. We are following Sandberg closely because she writes about issues so closely tied with our work. Unfortunately, female executives like her are still the exception, and gender discrimination remains widespread.

Lean In came out yesterday, and the reviews are in. The Times could hardly have chosen a more appropriate reviewer: Ann-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor who has long taken issue with Sandberg’s approach.

Slaughter’s review is measured. She praises aspects of the book:

Sandberg’s advice to young women to be more ambitious, which can sound like a finger-wagging admonishment when taken out of context, is framed here in more encouraging terms — “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” — addressing the self-doubt that still holds many women back.

Most important, Sandberg is willing to draw the curtain aside on her own insecurities. She describes the many times in her career when she was deeply unsure of herself, and the uncertainty that has never entirely gone away:

“I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities. I still have days when I feel like a fraud.”

Slaughter also criticizes:

So is the dearth of women in top jobs due to a lack of ambition or a lack of support? Both, as Sandberg herself grants, proposing that women should “wage battles on both fronts.” Yet she chooses to concentrate only on the “internal obstacles,” the ways in which women hold themselves back. This is unfortunate. As a feminist and a corporate leader, Sandberg seems ideally placed to ask the question that all too often gets lost amid the welter of talk about what women should do, what they should want and how they should behave. When it comes to ensuring that caregivers still have paths to the corner office, how can business lean in?

Many commentators take issue with Sandberg’s wealth, essentially arguing that her advice about career/family balance is irrelevant to those workers with fewer resources than she has—which is nearly everyone. But the Washington Post pokes a hole in this reasoning, asserting Lean In‘s value:

The detractors underestimate how radical Sandberg’s messages are for a mainstream audience. When was the last time you heard someone with a platform as big as hers argue that women should insist that their partners do an equal share of domestic work and child care?

The view that Sandberg is too rich and powerful to advise working women is shortsighted; it assumes that any sort of success is antithetical to feminism. The truth is, feminism could use a powerful ally. Here’s a nationally known woman calling herself a feminist, writing what will be a wildly popular book with feminist ideas, encouraging other women to be feminists. And we’re worried she has too much influence? That she’s too . . . ambitious?

Elsewhere, the San Francisco Chronicle was unmoved by Lean In, going so far as to call the book “a conduit whereby the musings of Facebook’s chief operating officer are used to drive Facebook traffic.”

It’s true that Sandberg is doing a lot of cross-promotion. She hopes the book will give rise to “Lean In Circles”: basically, support groups inspired by her work. (This Bloomberg View column loves the idea.)

But the most interesting recent essay on Sandberg is not actually a review of her book, although there will be plenty more of those. The New Yorker‘s website ran a piece by the founder of the feminist blog Jezebel, Anna Holmes, called “Maybe You Should Read the Book: The Sheryl Sandberg Backlash.”

Holmes puts together extremely convincing evidence that many critics of Sandberg haven’t even read her book, instead building and critiquing a Sandberg-like strawman who is out-of-touch, materialistic, and insufficiently feminist. Holmes points out how much Lean In humanizes Sandberg—and how her less-thoughtful critics are in pot/kettle territory:

But anyone who had read her book would have known that Sandberg herself is the first to acknowledge the debts she owes to the women who came before her, not to mention her youthful naïveté and eventual engagement with gender politics. “I headed into college believing that the feminists of the sixties and seventies had done the hard work of achieving equality for my generation,” she admits early on in “Lean In.” “And yet, if anyone had called me a feminist, I would have quickly corrected that notion.”

There was also a peculiar irony in so many writers accusing Sandberg of being craven and covetous. It didn’t seem to occur to these critics that accusing Sandberg of cashing in or cynically embracing gender politics for personal gain–especially without having read her book–might come across as hypocritical or similarly self-serving.

Of course, there is no perfect answer to the problem of sexism and prejudicial treatment. Sandberg’s insights and suggestions strike us as constructive, and the conversation they are generating can be useful.

That said: In the wake of her book, will more female workers advance merely because they assert themselves? Or will we see more claims of gender discrimination as women who assert themselves face a backlash of retaliation for stepping outside their traditional, more passive gender-specific workplace roles? If past results are any indication, the latter is sadly probable.

No matter what effect Lean In has, gender discrimination is a stubbornly harsh reality for many female workers. The Harman Firm aggressively seeks compensation for workers who have been mistreated, and we welcome questions on discrimination and employment law. Contact us today.