Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has been a major event; it’s been well received and thoroughly discussed. The book and the debates it stimulated appropriately returned attention to the ongoing gap between success promised and achieved by women in the corporate world.

Sandberg is herself an over-the-top success story. She has held top positions at both Google and Facebook. She, at least, is a take-all winner, one who managed to burst through the glass ceiling. But she remains aware of the many women around her who fail to speak up, who make unneeded compromises and veer off track. And she’s aware as well of those women damaged by unrealizable ‘have it all’ fantasies. Her prescription (which she makes clear is not intended for all) is to “lean in” -- to remain ambitious both for one’s personal career and for establishing a more equal world.

Lean In, Sandberg writes, is not a memoir, nor a self-help book, nor a career management primer. Maybe, she admits, it’s a manifesto. So perhaps it is not unfair to look at Lean In from a scientific perspective: what is Sandberg’s understanding of how one can effect social change? Sandberg herself is a prominent vertex in a social network that famously connects Google and Facebook (the ongoing migration of high tech talent from Google to Facebook, the smaller and more cool company, is partly inspired by Sandberg’s at-the-helm example). She can and does span these communities, as well as those built around Harvard, TEDTalks, and whatever Larry Summers happens to be doing (she describes Summers as a mentor). And no doubt her connections lead elsewhere, to centers of power unrevealed in Lean In. The trick then for Sandberg is how to maximize the influence that comes with such auspicious positioning.

Lean In is of course a populist enterprise. It is friendly and sympathetic though at times maudlin in tone. Sandberg is most appealing when she punctures her own importance by emphasizing ordinary experiences: struggling with morning sickness between meetings, bringing the kids in to work (of course, they get to romp with Mark Zuckerberg). At the end of the book there is an invitation to “keep talking” and encouragement to form “Lean In Circles;” Lean In, notwithstanding its retro incarnation as a book, is not simply a literary exercise. The virtual communities created here will be built on more stories -- of women raising their hands, confronting their bosses and husbands, refusing to push themselves off track -- which will refract and amplify those shared by Sandberg. A large part of Sandberg’s call is directed to the imaginations of women; ambition can only take hold by expanding the notion of the possible, and this would be a broader social effect than a mere book could achieve. Sandberg gets this. But the other audience of Lean In - the husbands and partners, the bosses male and female -- seem less likely to join this network, even if receptive to Sandberg’s message. That may not be a problem, in the end, as one can be ‘connected’ to a network somewhat passively, through a relationship with a network member of a different kind. Of course, these second-degree links (the relationships of the striving woman with her husband/partner/boss etc.) are the precise sites for the social changes Sandberg desires to effect.    

In an oversimplified model, Lean In creates a gendered network, with women forming multiple connections with Sandberg and each other, and the objects of the reform program (the powerful) arrayed outside the core.  Could such a network work? Perhaps -- abolitionism and intemperance, two earlier movements, might be represented by a gendered network model.

Success for Sandberg’s project is not to be measured as would success for Facebook or Google: it is not a question of toting up page-views or market capitalization. Indeed, both Facebook and Google suffer from the difficult challenge of defining (for aspirational purposes) what future success would look like -- beyond ever more of the same. More of the same would not satisfy Sandberg -- she fears social backsliding.

Of course, Lean In is yet another success for an extraordinary individual. Sandberg’s personal achievements are not to be discounted -- but one wonders if she (like most successful people) understands exactly what happened to place her at the top. Lean In is, in the end, a book about virtue; one takes nothing away from the appeal of Sandberg’s prescriptions by describing them as new virtues. And in many moral systems, virtue offers no particular promise of reward, save an ennobling effect of the virtuous person herself. Be brave, work hard, stay in the game, reach. Can’t hurt.

Lean In is shortlisted for the 2013 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.
See my reviews of these other shortlisted books for the 2013 FT/Goldman Sachs Award:

Neil Irwin, The Alchemists
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data
Anita Raghavan, The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund 

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