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Book Review: What Do Working Women Want, and Need?

In the fall of 2005, The New York Times published a controversial article about the career ambitions of Ivy League women. For all these young women had achieved — high SAT scores, acceptance to some of the nation’s top colleges — and despite their lofty professional goals, a number of women interviewed said they planned to “opt out” from the workforce, at least for a few years, when they became mothers.

Though she doesn’t specifically discuss the article in her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and The Will To Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, would probably find such attitudes troubling. Sandberg has managed to climb her way to the top of the business world, starting out as Larry Summers’ protege at the Treasury Department in the 1990s before heading to top jobs at Google and Facebook, while married to a husband with an equally demanding career and raising two children.

The method that Sandberg has employed in her rise to the top is the opposite of the Opt Out. It’s the Lean In. It’s a message that she’s conveyed in a Barnard College commencement speech and a talk at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference for women. While acknowledging that the paucity of women in parliaments and corporate boardrooms worldwide is alarming, Sandberg makes the argument that it’s often women — not external forces — who hold themselves back, often making accommodations in their careers for partners and children who aren’t yet in the picture, or not having enough faith in what they’re capable of accomplishing. That needs to change, Sandberg says, if we are to see more women leaders in fields traditionally dominated by men.

“Don’t enter the workforce already looking for the exit,” she writes in Lean In. “Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.”

Lean In is the latest entry in the “Can women have it all?” dialogue, and it engendered fierce debate long before its release this week. Much of the criticism was leveled at Sandberg herself. What right, these critics seemed to ask, did a wealthy, Harvard-educated woman, who’d had opportunities presented to her by very powerful men (Summers and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg), have in telling other women that they should “lean in” to their careers?

One of the great things about Lean In is the easygoing tone Sandberg uses throughout, possibly to defuse her critics. At no point does she come across as a woman talking down to other women. She acknowledges her own shortcomings: in a chapter that emphasizes the importance of confidence, she confesses that she’s “a long way from mastering the art of feeling confident” — even as Forbes magazine placed her at No. 5 on its list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

Employees and employers would do well to read Lean In, because even if the whole of Sandberg’s 228-page book may not resonate with everyone, there are parts that probably will. Instead of focusing solely on the problem of the lack of female leaders in the business and political realms, Sandberg pushes us toward finding solutions.

An argument Sandberg returns to several times in Lean In is that women underestimate their abilities. She tells the story of an exam she took during her Harvard days with her younger brother and a friend. Post-exam, Sandberg and her friend lamented the answers they’d wished they’d given, and what bearing that might have on their final grade. Her brother, who’d barely cracked a book during the term, was sure he’d received an A. In the end, they all did.

During her Google days, Sandberg observed that it was most often men who sought new opportunities as the company grew. Women were more likely to doubt their potential or their preparedness for new tasks. “It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do,” Sandberg writes. Yet she doesn’t place the onus entirely on women. “If we want a world with greater equality, we need to acknowledge that women are less likely to keep their hands up,” she writes. “We need institutions and individuals to notice and correct for this behavior by encouraging, promoting, and championing more women.”

The book’s title indicates that its primary audience is women, but there are lessons to be had in Lean In for improving the workplace for men and women. To improve communication, Sandberg advocates shedding the corporate jargon and getting down to brass tacks. She relates a humorous anecdote about Zuckerberg’s interaction with a Facebook employee in Chinese. Zuckerberg had limited fluency in the tongue, and needed the employee to speak slowly and simply about a problem she was facing, until she conveyed her message: “My manager is bad.” Far better, Sandberg writes, for employees to articulate an issue as directly as they can, rather than shrouding their dissatisfaction in ambiguities. When it comes to the oft-discussed but vague practice of “mentorship,” Sandberg says these relationships need to evolve naturally. “I believe we have sent the wrong message to young women,” she writes. “We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’”

There is one constituency with whom Sandberg’s message may not resonate, and it’s a large one: the legions of Americans, many of them women, who have no choice but to be heads of their households, and who often work in low-wage, low-skill professions. These workers may not have the $24.95 to shell out for Sandberg’s book, or even Internet access to watch her TED talk, because they’re saddled with high childcare costs, an issue Sandberg disappointingly doesn’t address at length. These parents don’t get a lot of mentions in Lean In, other than as statistics.

It’s hard to tell what the Lean In movement’s long-term impact will be among women of all backgrounds. But it is good to see someone of Sandberg’s stature not only address the issues women (and men) face in the workplace, but move the conversation in a different direction. Instead of returning to old questions about “why women can’t have it all,” Sandberg gives us new challenges to consider in their place.

The writer can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com.