I’m sure the media hype, hatred and vitriol toward Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In has not escaped the radar of many of you (as we are all media savvy peeps). Even before Sandberg’s book came out it was getting trashed and panned and I was, needless to say, intrigued. (Don’t even get me started on all the people angry at Melissa Meyer the new CEO at Yahoo! who is requiring people to work in the office. Heaven forbid!) The night Lean In was released I picked up a copy from work and started reading when I got home. I was curious to see what her book was truly all about, and see what her thoughts on women, work and families were. Within minutes of reading the book, I was hooked. And I really mean, HOOKED! I grabbed it on my way out of work at 11pm at night and read for 2 hours when I got home. It was that compelling. I finished the book a few days later and have not been able to shut up about how good it was or stop recommending it to people. Upon starting the book, I texted my friend Amy who I work with and said “get this book. NOW.” I have talked about it nonstop to the point where a woman several locker bays down from me at the health club came over and asked if I was talking about Lean In. I told her I was and we started to discuss the book and I said I could not recommend it highly enough to EVERYONE. And to this day, despite all the backlash she has gotten across many platforms, I stand by my statement. You need to read this book. It is one of the best treatises I have read on women, work and families in a long time.
Lean In starts out by detailing Sandberg’s early life as a young woman with parents who valued education and her college and post-grad experience. She discusses openly her failed first marriage, her fears at remarrying, and her current family life with her husband and two children. But the real meat of the book is about what she has to say she has learned by being a full-time woman working at a high executive level in various industries from the Treasury Department to Google to Facebook. Sandberg is HONEST in this book. REFRESHINGLY HONEST. She talks openly about how scared she was that she did not belong at Harvard. That she was going to fail tests, fail out, and never make it. That these feelings continued well past her post-grad experience and carried her into her work life. Honestly, I think these are feelings we have all had at some point or another, especially those of us who have had experience in higher education and post-graduate work. I completely and totally related to what she had to say. One of my most vivid law school memories was sitting in my first semester, Civil Procedure I final, with the two women on either side of me crying as they read the exam questions and started their answers. I remember thinking in my second year that I absolutely bombed my Evidence final, only to learn after a month of worrying about it (and I’m talking sleepless nights here), that I got the highest score in the class and a Cali award. Not believing in myself or my abilities enough, I actually went to see my professor to tell him I think he got it wrong. He did not. He laughed at me and told me to have more faith in myself. At the time, I thought “easy for him to say” because I was terrified of not being able to hack it. Law school was hard as hell and the competition and attitudes of my fellow students didn’t exactly bolster my self-confidence at the time.
I’ve thought long and hard about what I wanted to say about this book, and whether or not to weigh in on it. Ultimately, I realized that yes, I did need to write about it because I found it such a compelling read. Because she writes in a way that everyone can connect with. And because what she has to say is so important. Ultimately, upon reflecting on this book and what I took away from it over the past few weeks, I realized that the reason I found this book so compelling is that the advice she gives and the commentary she has started is truly applicable to every woman, working outside the home or not, regardless of profession. The general practicalities of what she says — lean in to your career, sit at the table, don’t be afraid to look for opportunities to grow and increase your skill set– apply to everyone whether you work as a cashier at 7-11 or are the President of your own company. Find a problem you face and figure out how to fix it. Understand that we are ALL scared at some point, that we ALL don’t think we can do the job we are faced with, that we are ALL stressed out with how to balance our work life and our home life and that this stress has at some point kept all of us awake at night.
One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard of this book is that Sandberg is “un-relatable” to the vast majority of working women, as she is a high-earning executive and can afford childcare options and household help that others cannot. Totally true. And she doesnt’ sugarcoat it. She is in a position through her earning power and her husband’s earning power to provide options for her family that many people do not have. However, that does not negate the fact that she has the same struggles that everyone else does–how to be a part of her family’s life and meet the time demands of her career, how to get it all done, how to carve out a niche of time for herself. The fact that she can afford nannies and whatever childcare options she needs does not take away from the fact that if she is not home at night in time to put her kids to bed 5 days a week, she fears, the same way all parents do, that her kids won’t know who she is.
I also fail to see how Sandberg’s advice to women, to go full steam ahead into whatever field they are in, and not immediately assume that just because they are women that they cannot accomplish their goals, is somehow advice that is limited to women in executive fields alone. At one point in her book, Sandberg recounts a conversation with a colleague who wanted to join her team at Google, but in a role that was completely different from what she had done professionally up until that point. Sandberg was blown away by how this woman approached her, and instead of doing what all other candidates did in the interviews, she started off with a simple question of “what is your biggest problem you deal with in your position and how can I help to fix it?” By doing this, Sandberg’s colleague immediately placed herself in a position where she was helping move forward and be a problem solver. Asking that simple question “what is the biggest challenge you face and how do you feel I can best work to solve it?” is something that everyone can ask regardless of what they do. I just asked that exact question this week of a new management team that I will be working with professionally as we start a new fiscal year — things are going really smoothly where I’ll be, but there is always room to improve — what can I do to help that? It was a simple question, the answers to which helps provide me with guidance and goals for my own fiscal year and projects. And again, it is a question that anyone can ask regardless of whether they work outside the home or inside, and regardless of the nature of their work.
Another part of what prompted me to write this book is the hatred, just plain evil-spirited talk, that surrounds this book. This morning, the Chicago Tribune online edition had a story about a talk that Sandberg did in Chicago this week. You can watch the video and read the story here. The article was short and sweet and gave an outline of the book. What struck me, though, were the comments by readers following the article. One reader commented “Sandberg is VIP who lives in a fairytale world of privilege and entitlement. Essentially, she’s a man living inside a woman’s body.” Another, “This lady is just another women from the [LIB] list who hasn”t turned gay, speaking to those who want to listen to her.” And, “It’s also time for men to lead. It’s been a while.” These are just a few comments that I’ve heard and seen repeated time and again about Sandberg and her book. Needless to say, I am sickened and appalled. When I was a young women, I was never told by my parents that there was anything I could not accomplish (except perhaps being an Olympic gymnast, as I was already 5’10” in the 5th grade.) How Sandberg’s book, which is a very positive, go forward and be all you can be type book can prompt anyone to say that she is a “man living inside a woman’s body” or that she has just not yet “turned gay” is ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. I want to rail in the face of these morons and ask them “do you really not believe that a woman can be successful?” That a woman does not have the ability or brains to lead a large company based solely on the fact that she has breasts and a vagina? How does that impact her ability to do her job? This woman went to HARVARD. TWICE! That’s more than most men in the workforce, and yet she is denigrated. And, of course, because she believes that women CAN have a career and a family, and believes that women should receive equal pay for equal work, and have the same opportunities as men, she is somehow now a lesbian too. I believe those same things and I am not a lesbian. Nor are any of my other heterosexual friends who believe that. And even if we were, it so does not matter! Utterly ridiculous. Comments like those quoted above are exactly why this book needs to be read–by men, by women, by parents with young daughters and young sons. It is beyond time for American society to understand that women are as smart as men, that women can excel in their chosen professions, and that simply having been born with breasts and a vagina is not a reason to be held back.
Some of the most vitriolic comments against Sandberg, though, have been from other women. I am at a loss as to how this can be. If women cannot stand together and say in one voice “we are here, we are smart, we are capable, and we should have the same opportunities and choices that men do,” we will never get anything accomplished. A failure to do this is something that I will NEVER understand. Of course, I have my own theories why. I see it with friends I have who are stay at home moms who get defensive about the choice they have made. I see it with working mom friends who get defensive at the choices they have made. And I see it with couples who have chosen not to have children and get defensive about the choices they have made. When other people–friends, family and media–denigrate the choices we make, we lash out. When we are insecure about the choices we have made, we lash out. And when we feel backed into a corner by choices that have been made for us, we lash out. Ultimately, it is time that we stop attacking others for the life choices and career choices and childbearing choices that they have made that work for them, and start embracing them. My friend’s decision to stay home with her children does not impact my life in any way, nor does my decision to work impact hers (other than, perhaps, making it more difficult to find time to chat on the phone or meet up). These are #firstworldproblems to the nth degree and are not problems at all. Is it okay to be jealous of what Sandberg has accomplished and the rewards she has reaped as a result? Sure, I guess. If you use that jealousy in a healthy way to motivate yourself to change. If you just sit back and bitch and complain about her, you’ve accomplished NOTHING. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned in my late 20’s and early 30’s is that if you want to see change in your life, the onus is on you to effect it. Nobody else is going to come along and give you what you want on a silver platter. You want a new job? Find it. You want to meet someone to share your life with? Put yourself in situations that will allow it. You want to lose weight? Start moving. Eat less. It will all fall into place. But it takes effort. And good old fashioned elbow grease and hard work.
I’ve read a lot of books in my life on the issue of women’s studies, from Gloria Steinem to now Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve read a lot of business books, and life books (and let’s not forget trashy books too!). Lean In is important. It needs to be read. The ideas that Sandberg has hit on, need to be discussed openly and women and men need to support each other so we can all move forward in a productive society. Have any of you read the book? What were your thoughts? Opinions? Etc? Let me know! I haven’t been this excited to discuss a book since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!
And of course, Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all my readers:)