Wednesday, December 4, 2013

book review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

The basics:  "Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential." (from publisher)

My thoughts: I chose to use the publisher's description because it's not the kind of book I would normally read (or enjoy), based on its description. Yet I kept hearing trusted friends and colleagues rave about it, so I decided to give it a try. And I am so, so glad I did. Not only did I like it, I loved it. I loved it so much I think it should be required reading for anyone. Period. Hear me out, my fellow nonfiction and business book skeptics.

I have an aversion to business. I sought out work as an academic librarian to be far, far away from the corporate world, yet I've slowly realized over the past few years that by living in capitalist society, I cannot be completely removed from business. Many of the same power dynamics are at play in business are in academia. More importantly, in the courses I teach, many students, male and female, seek a career in business. I view part of my role as preparing for them for that work, even though I have no affiliation with the business school. By the end of the first chapter, I knew I would find a way to teach this book in my First Year Seminar (FYS) next fall. In my FYS, we spent the first month of class reading and discussing Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a book I thoroughly enjoy, but as fascinating as it is, some of my students expressed a level of helplessness after reading it, as though their future success (or lack thereof) has already been decided for them. Lean In is an inspiring antidote to Outliers. Sandberg is a visionary, both personally and professionally:
"A truly equal world would be on where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. I believe that this would be a better world. The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve."
What Sandberg does so beautifully in this book is to weave her personal experiences and observations into an impeccably researched narrative and call to action. There are certainly sobering realizations. The idea of "stereotype threat" haunts me:
"Social scientists have observed that when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype, they are more likely to perform according to that stereotype. For example, stereotypically, boys are better at math and science than girls. When girls are reminded of their gender before a math or science tests, even by something as simple as checking off an M or F box at the top of the text, they perform worse." 
I was most moved by two pieces of the book: the mistakes young female workers make by not leaning in and the fraught ideas of fitting children into career. As a professor, I want to do all I can to steer my students away from the sexist tropes of business,both in my classroom and in their lives. Far too often I witness gender-stereotype-reinforcing behavior from my male and female students. I should do more to address it directly rather than trying to redirect it. As a 33-year-old happily married, career-driven woman trying to start a family, ideas about balancing work and family are often on my mind. I harbor no desire to not return to work when (or if) we have a child. But I still find myself wanting to lean out rather than lean in lately, particularly in terms of the future. In academia, as in many fields, we are always planning far ahead. When discussing events in 2014 and 2015, I find myself thinking (and doubting), as I wonder--but what if I'm pregnant or on maternity leave then? What obligation do I have to share my personal plans now? Should I be afraid to mention the idea of wanting a family? If the last six months have taught me anything, it's that you don't know when (or if) it will happen, and yet it took Sandberg's direct encouragement that this is the most important time in my career to lean in. There is no more important time to have a challenging, fulfilling career than when trying to bring a new life into this world.

Favorite passage: "Personal choices are not always as personal as they appear. We are all influenced by social conventions, peer pressure, and familial expectations."

The verdict: If I had to sum up the message of Sandberg's book, it would be with this passage from a speech she made at a college graduation: "I hope you find true meaning, contentment and passion in your life." It's simple and eloquent, and the rest of her book outlines all the complexities of our world that make that so much easier than said done. Sandberg asserts the world would be a better place if we had more women running companies and more men running homes, and I agree. I also think the world would be a better place if everyone read Lean In.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 241 pages
Publication date: March 11, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Lean In from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Sheryl Sandberg's website, follow her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for a great review of this one. I've seen it popping up on a lot of trusted blogs but wasn't sure it's something that I'd find important or enjoyable.

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    1. Andi, I think you'd really like it. It was a fabulous read, and perhaps the book I'm most surprised I loved ever. I went in thinking I would hate it and have been recommending it to everyone since. It's impeccably researched, which certainly helps, but Sandberg is laudably open about her own experiences, and I was surprised to find I had so much in common with her!

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  2. Thank you for your review. I've read other positive reviews on this book. I enjoyed reading your review.

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  3. Yes, like Andi, I'm grateful for your review -- it's gotten a lot of press but your comments make me think I'd enjoy this. Normally I'm allergic to these kinds of books and have been ignoring it -- I'm adding it to my xmas wishlist now!

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    1. Audra, I think you'd like it too--and I'll look forward to comparing notes with you once you read it!

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  4. I'm with Andi and Audra, I really didn't think this was a book for me. Since I've never read Outliers either, what is it about that book that makes your students feel helpless?

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    1. Vasilly, for many it's their first exposure to the fact that hard work might not be enough in life--you need a few other things to go your way. There's a lot of good things about how where you come from shapes your life, and many of them have never thought much about the impact their parents, schooling, and location have made on them and will continue too.

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    2. Well that's understandable about how that can make your students a little sad (or a lot). Hmmm. I may read Outliers though for some reason Gladwell turns me off.

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  5. Thanks for this review! I've been avoiding this book because I was worried it might not stand up to the hype. Plus, the title made me think that the main counsel it would provide is that women need to "lean in" even further, which - if it's used to generalise - I profoundly disagree with: plenty of women lean in more than enough and still don't get anywhere because they're directly or indirectly prevented from getting ahead. Your review makes me think that the book may actually be much more nuanced. Was that the case?

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  6. I loved this too! I liked what she said about the children thing too... I actually always assumed if have kids early and stay home... Fortunately I didn't plan my career around that but imagine how much time I'd have wasted being in my 30's now and childless!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!