Is Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” The Next Great Feminist Manifesto?

bookFacebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead, has come out accompanied by a blizzard of discussion, even among those who haven’t read it. I did read it, and found it to be a thoughtful, heavily researched and detailed book that will no doubt inspire countless young women to aim higher in their careers.

In Lean In, Sandberg publicly embraces feminism in a way that few corporate leaders do—and now she is sharing with other women the lessons she’s learned on her way up. Her message is reminiscent of Betty Friedan’s in The Feminine Mystique, adapted for the modern corporate world. In the opening chapter, Sandberg writes:

From an early age, girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they will make between professional and personal goals. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives—the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.

While Sandberg acknowledges that there are systemic barriers for women that need to be changed in our workplaces to allow more women to make it to the top, she posits that there are still some things women can do to take charge and get further in their careers right now. It could be years, even decades, before Congress passes legislation mandating more family-friendly policies at work—but you could ask for a raise or take a risk on a new project tomorrow. The power of Sandberg’s message lies in the fact that personal career success is not entirely reliant on waiting for the system to change, which could take years: it empowers women to begin changing their own lives right now.

Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy has been the subject of much controversy. Is she blaming women for not trying hard enough? Far from it. Sandberg argues that the reason women hold themselves back in their careers is because of those messages they’ve received their entire lives: that it’s not very feminine to be aggressive or ambitious; that as a woman it’s nearly impossible to have both a career and a family. Her point isn’t that women aren’t ambitious, but rather that women are afraid to fully embrace their ambitions because they’ve been convinced of those two messages their entire lives.

In Lean In, Sandberg sets out to shatter these myths and liberate women at all stages of their careers from their grasp. She doles out advice peppered with her own stories of mistakes and lessons learned, from the story of how she passed on a job offer to be CEO of LinkedIn because she was pregnant, to how she demanded pregnancy parking from her bosses at Google during her difficult pregnancy, to her admission that she still feels self-doubt daily. In sharing her own mistakes, fears and lessons learned, she avoids coming off as a rich woman talking down to women who are less fortunate. Rather, she comes off as self-effacing, relateable and a mentor to women in the workplace. She encourages women to embrace their ambitions rather than downplay them, to seek partners who will support their careers and help lessen the burden at home, to let go of perfectionism and guilt, to believe in themselves fully and to reach for their goals in life.

Sandberg does not claim to be representative of or speaking to all women, and she is cognizant of the fact that her message is directed to a specific group of women, but she does not judge the choices of others. She writes:

While I believe that increasing the number of women in positions of power is a necessary element of true equality, I do not believe there is one definition of success or happiness. Not all women want careers. Not all women want children. Not all women want both. I would never advocate that we should all have the same objectives. … We each have to chart our own unique course and define what goals fit our lives, values and dreams.

Lean In is not all-encompassing; it is specifically a manual for how women can further their careers. It is not, nor does it claim to be, the complete solution to the problem gender of inequality in the workforce. Sandberg acknowledges several times throughout the book that she is well aware that there are external systemic barriers holding women back at work, and that she is only tackling one part of the problem, but she makes a compelling argument that getting more women in leadership roles will help to dismantle texternal barriers as well. Writes Sandberg:

My argument is that tearing down these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. Others have argued that women can get to the top only when the institutional barriers are gone. This is the ultimate chicken-and-the-egg situation. The chicken: Women will get rid of the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. We will march into our bosses’ offices and demand what we need, including pregnancy parking. Or better yet, we’ll become bosses and make sure all women have what they need. The egg: we need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into those roles in the first place. Both sides are right. So rather than engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first, let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts. They are equally important. I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg.

As far as career advice books go, it is difficult to read Lean In and not come away from it feeling inspired to begin applying Sandberg’s advice to one’s own career. Society constantly tells women that we can’t juggle both a career and family. No one ever wonders how a man “has it all,” yet a woman possessing both a flourishing career and happy family life is still treated as a rarity. Last summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter made waves with her cover story in The Atlantic,Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” but I found Slaughter’s message problematic: Her prognosis on the status of women is bleak and offers women little in terms of concrete advice for how they can, in fact, “have it all,” or whatever their version of “it all” is.

Sandberg’s message is a welcome departure from that oft-repeated message that women can’t have both a career and a family. Instead, Sandberg is saying to women: You can achieve all the things you want in life, and here’s how to start achieving those goals now.

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