“Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead:” A review

Every mother has a head lice story. Mine takes place after a series of recurring outbreaks at the local Y daycare. I was angry and humiliated when the frustrated staff unjustly accused not only the long hair of our three little girls, but also that of our fluffy St. Bernard Brandy of being the vector. Sheryl Sandberg’s tale – equally mortifying – involves her little boy and little girl and the corporate jet of eBay’s CEO John Donahue. There you have it in a nitshell: women of every race and class face corresponding challenges, but the dramatically different circumstances leave you wondering if there’s the basis for an alliance?

In “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” Sandberg doesn’t address that issue, rather, she shares lessons she’s learned during her climb to the top of corporate America as Facebook’s chief operating officer and former Google executive. She advises women to go after leadership positions and “lean in” to their careers. Negotiate aggressively for better pay and better positions, she says.

Any woman who’s worked in non-traditional jobs will recognize the issues she lays out. “Read it, she’s not evil,” urged my daughter Megan as she handed me the book. I found that I did not resent Sandberg’s encouragement of women to “sit at the table” nor her deflation of the annoying myths about mentoring. And Sandberg did have some good ideas worth taking into account. Two that struck me were: besides your long-term dream, have an 18-month plan for goals you want to accomplish and a corresponding 18-month plan for new skills you want to learn or acquire. Hers was to learn to “run a small deal team.” Not sure what that means, but mine or yours might be to get a GED, or learn to become proficient on social media. Short-term goals completed do give a sense of accomplishment.

Here’s another thing that I’ve seen stymie women: If you’re successful some people won’t like you. It’s true. Further, I agree with Sandberg. You can address it around the edges, but basically it’s your own thinking you have to change – being liked is not the goal. Easy to say, but hard to live, for people who have spent our lives trying to be liked.

Sandberg notes that she, like many of her generation, held back from calling themselves feminists, not wanting to look like they couldn’t look out for themselves. That made me smile. I, from a generation earlier, also held back. From the opposite end of the spectrum, I didn’t want to be associated with those who felt the primary contradiction in a world of class conflict was that between men and women. I think we both had to learn that sisterhood is powerful.

Sandberg tries to address “the myth of doing it all,” which afflicts working-class women as much as others and is usually seen as the competition between paid employment and staying home to watch your children unpaid. Of course, the first thing that must be said about that issue is that the vast majority of American women have no choice – they must seek paid employment to support their families. We are even more limited than women in the entire rest of the developed world, nearly all of whom receive at least some paid maternity leave. A worker at McDonald’s will probably be back at the grill as soon as she’s able to be on her feet, because every day off is a day without pay.

But Sandberg, while she acknowledges ” that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families” isn’t aiming her advice at all women, only those on a career track to advancement. Yes, we need such advice – we’ve all given and taken more advice as well as encouragement in the workplace bathrooms than in a therapist’s office. But these tips and encouragement cannot be taken as a long range plan for women’s equality.

For example, Sandberg gives a lot of advice about negotiating your salary, but few working-class women will ever be in a position to negotiate their compensation. That is unless they bargain collectively. Unlike for corporate managers, having a union is the only workable negotiating strategy for working-class women or men.

How women – all women – feel about our work, and how our work makes us feel about ourselves is an issue that calls out for discussion in an era when more than 75 percent of women over 16 participate in the paid workforce. Sandberg obviously derives great satisfaction from the challenge, pride and social interaction of her work life. I’ve worked a million jobs in my life – from waitress to lab tech, to assembly line worker, to florist, now as a (volunteer) administrator. I treasure every tool and co-worker, every lesson and interaction, every hard-learned skill, every locker room joke and smile of encouragement, every job well done. And mostly the stories my co workers shared from their lives. Honestly, I was disappointed that Sheryl Sandberg didn’t share more of what a corporate exec actually does as a manager.

Personally, I feel the same need to be a participant in the social infrastructure that extends beyond my family and I would say that is a need that most humans feel. So let me speak on behalf of Sandburg and say that even if her job didn’t come with its zillion dollar trappings (and try as I might I just couldn’t write this review without mentioning – not just fabulous home, wardrobe and vacations, but finances to insure no worries about day care, maternity leave paid staff for housecleaning, laundry, food preparation, quality education, health care, dependable transportation ok I admit it’s hard to see beyond all that ) – even without all that I believe she would agree that she derives satisfaction from being engaged in the work itself.  I don’t fault that – even in a socialist society there would be a need for Facebook and so for the contribution that Sandberg as a manager makes to that enterprise, hurray for her.

What Sandberg doesn’t say, but I will, is that any job can be satisfying if it is compensated and respected. Thus, a call center worker, for example, helps people, has skills. What’s missing is the respect and the pay. The server at Dunkin Donuts is part of the social network of society as much as  Facebook, and her work and people skills affect scores of customers and co-workers. A retail worker can take pride in her job, as can the child care worker and the person who harvests strawberries. Even the lowly instrument mechanic exploring  the dark and redolent crevices of Chicago’s sewers (that would be me!). All of these jobs have intrinsic value and social connections and could provide satisfaction and mental stimulation if they were compensated commensurate to their contribution to the social good.

There was a time in the history of the American women’s movement when, parallel to the suffragist struggle, middle-class and even wealthy women lent their energies and passion, voices and resources to the struggles of poor and working-class women. They fought for higher wages and safe working conditions for factory girls. These women were essential parts of the Womens Trade Union League. They marched, lent their homes for meetings, even went to jail. They provided educational opportunities and encouragement. Where are their spiritual descendants today?

Sandberg argues that having women in decision-making spots will make things better for all women. But we have not heard her voice chime in for paid maternity leave. She points out the compelling statistic that the cost of day care for two children exceeds the median rent in every state of the union! Where is the call for national child care? And on a corporate level, while the Silicon Valley tech workers seem to have generous benefits, how about the women who work for the contractors, like security firms who are currently struggling for a union? I’m sure a company offer to include paid maternity leave would be a welcome gesture and the kind of thing we would like to see initiated by women in positions of power.

So I don’t think it’s nitpicking to say it would be wonderful to see corporate leaders like Sandberg go beyond giving advice and use their corporate clout to advocate for social policies like government-financed day care and employer maternity leave.

Sister, it’s not enough for women to just “Lean In,” we’ve also got to reach out.

Photo: Knopf


Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.