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Review of Lean In

Recently I finished listening to Lean In, which you should probably Google if you don’t already know it. I listened to it as part of a college-friend-audible-book-listening-club, and kept some thoughts about the book as I listened on. Here they are.

If there is one key theme to the book that deserves singling-out, it is the focus on the individual woman as the unit of analysis. Sandberg’s book, when it’s all boiled down, is a entreaty to women, as individuals, to consider a fuller range of career and family options, and gives many “how-tos” regarding how to accomplish some of the tougher options. She is basically saying “You, promising young woman, here is what you have against you and how you can best navigate it”. So although she does pronounce some big goals, such as 50/50 splits in the executive ranks everywhere, her book is emphatically not about what policy needs to do to change things. This is a pragmatic manifesto which aims to give women more tools to confront, as individuals, the institutional sexism that impedes their career progress.

I’m going to get an MBA quite soon, so I’m a sympathetic audience for career-enhancing tips, and I found much of her advice quite applicable as well as useful. Perhaps sadly, though, much of her advice is either not gender specific or only applicable to elites.

Sandberg’s advice can be broken down into two categories: that aimed at helping women more adeptly confront sexist barriers in their professional lives, and that aimed at helping women to make choices that balance their professional and personal lives. For the former, most of this material is, when one really gets down to it, applicable in equal parts for men For example, when outlining the differing negotiating strategies of men and women, the advice that she gives to her female readers is to use tactics that are, in their essence, a subset of the “principled negotiation” methods outlined in Getting to Yes. Men, too, would be well advised to adopt state-of-the-art bargaining methods, not to mention develop relationships with mentors, and to have some thoughts about their future careers.

Although Sandberg is absolutely right to attack the stigma placed on working mothers from all sides (showing, for example, that children with home care from nannies develop just as well and have just as healthy a relationship with their mothers as those raised by full-time moms. I, for one, am one of these children, so I should hope so.), it is just not the case that many women are in a position to consider many of the options that Sandberg urges her audience to feel better about, such as working more flexible hours or having a nanny. Sandberg acknowledges this, and this does not affect the efficacy of her argument; it does, however, limit its scope.

The most powerful part of the book is Sandberg’s entreaty to women not to put their foot on the brakes of their professional lives until they are indeed confronted with hard tradeoffs. The point of the practical portions of the book being, of course, tools to give women a better set of options in these dilemmas.

The book is littered with references to studies and much of its summarized research is quite compelling. Sandberg erred, though, in making her argument for the motivation of the book; namely, that women’s progress infiltrating all strata of professional ranks had stalled. Her data, which were only long-term statistics, only showed that progress was not yet complete, not that it had slowed down. This mishandling of the data led me to approach the rest of her citations with a more skeptical eye.

It’s an interesting book, but far more so for its cultural cache than the material inside.