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Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is getting some pretty predictable criticism. Aside from those obviously motivated by simple jealousy (of the “easy for her to say”sort), there are a few that do have some legitimacy:  the book is aimed at an elite, the advice is contradictory, and there is nothing really new in it. I agree with all of them, but I think such criticisms miss what is important about Lean In, as well as where it falls short.

The book is quite clearly pitched at young women who, like Sandberg at an earlier age, are on the brink of a career in business and who are worried about managing the contradiction between career and family.  It seemed to me very specifically framed to appeal to recent or current MBAs, such as my own students.  These young women will, I am sure, gobble this book up, as most of them are, in my experience, hungry for something that will guide them in this most impossible of paths.

These young women are our best hope for attaining a reasonable representation of females in leadership of the world economy.  Yes, they are an elite.  Yes, they are an excruciatingly thin slice of humanity.  But if we think that women becoming business leaders is important (and I think we can all agree on that one, given how powerful such positions are, how much they affect the lives of more “ordinary” women), then it is a good thing to have someone they can admire speaking out as a feminist.

The advice is contradictory and the observations nothing new because Sandberg largely builds on other people’s research.  This is not a bad thing.  It is better than speaking only from one’s own experience–a practice that, in the gender wars, only leads to slinging around a bunch of nonsense.  I was impressed that she had done her homework.

However, the problem is that most work on the gender gap is presentist and psychological in orientiation.  It seeks to find the differences in personal style that produce the gap and invokes a vague “gender stereotyping” as the cause.  The inevitable inference is that if people, especially women, would simply change their attitudes, the gender gap would dissolve.

Certainly a massive change in attitude would go a long way.  But I think the approach trivializes what we are up against and leads to advice that is individualistic.  This kind of advice, because its effectiveness must inevitably depend on the particular circumstances in which it is applied, seems destined to produce contradiction.  And I can’t get away from the feeling that it treats gender like a superficial accident–something that can be wiped away with the right sponge, much like a spill on a countertop.

The fact is that the economic chasm between women and men is thousands of years old. It is evident not only in differences in pay or promotion at the top, but in the inheritance laws in India, in the access to banking in Africa, in the violence against factory girls in Mexico.  To really grasp the challenge, we must face that the ancient rules denying women property, the right to credit, to ability to make contracts, and the ability to inherit are equally as important as the exclusion from paid work. These rules are still in force in much of the world–and in the places where they are no longer in force, we are still nevertheless coping with their aftermath.

I truly believe that until we recognize this problem as a long-standing, entrenched exclusion that reaches from Los Angeles to Lagos–and stop treating it like a self-help subject–we will not be effective in our attempts to solve it.


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