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Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' offers a feminist view from the top

The Facebook executive's book stirs up controversy with her advice for women -- and suggests a way forward.

March 07, 2013|By Rebecca Traister, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. (Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg )

Sheryl Sandberg's explosive "Lean In" — a muscular manifesto on the gender inequities of the professional world — is being published within weeks of the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." It's a convergence destined to invite disparaging comparisons, to prompt people to holler about how they knew Betty Friedan and that Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and one of the most powerful women in the tech world, is no Betty Friedan.

But with "Lean In," an upbeat and unapologetically bossy debut, Sandberg is making a disruptive, crucial observation that puts her very much in line with Friedan: All is not just in the gendered world, and we should be talking urgently about how to make it better.

Rather than exposing the ennui of midcentury middle-class housewifery, Sandberg is spotlighting the maddening inequalities of the very professional world into which Friedan exhorted women to venture half a century ago. Sandberg, with her rare view from the top, is naming and attempting to redress the double standards, entrenched attitudes and regressive catch-22s that drive women into ruts of self-doubt, lowered expectations and accommodating self-sacrifice.

Sandberg — whom I met briefly at a women's media event last year — wants more women in the upper echelons of the public sphere and advises them to "lean in" to their careers and halt self-sabotaging behaviors. Her belief is that the more women are able to circumnavigate institutional roadblocks, renegotiate domestic roles, or simply plow their way to the top, the faster those boss-ladies will make the world better for all women.

I don't know if Sandberg is correct that more women at the top would lead to broad, female-friendly reforms. No one knows, since we are eons away from gender parity and the women whose names we cite when arguing about whether women in charge make any positive difference — Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Rodham Clinton — all succeeded as exceptions. They developed their behaviors within a male-dominated power structure and thus tell us little about what an equitably run universe might look like. But if Sandberg's prescriptions encourage any women to further their own prospects with an eye to bringing others along with them, then I really can't see what's bad about them.

"Lean In" is co-written by feminist comedy writer Nell Scovell; it's a brisk mix of research, analysis and anecdote that draws on the wisdom of popular feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and Tina Fey but also weaves in the work of deep-diving activists and scholars, such as Joan C. Williams, Ellen Bravo and Heather Boushey.

Sandberg concedes her personal privilege and the limits it may set on the usefulness of her approach, writing that she's "aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet.... Parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work" and that it's "much easier for me to lean in, since my financial resources allow me to afford any help I need."

She's right about that, and some anecdotes from her rarefied milieu — there's one about a Fidelity exec who, while working in emerging markets, tested her boyfriend's flexibility by asking him to meet her for weekends in Sao Paolo — can be alienating.

But other tales from Sandberg's stratosphere (the business-whiz mother who, when her primary-caregiver husband is out of town, finds herself unable to successfully pack school lunches) offer a refreshing inversion of the stories we're relentlessly fed about women opting out of work because the pull of domesticity is too irresistible.

Sandberg has no time for biologically determined stereotypes and suggests that men should "lean in" at home. "Even if 'mother knows best' is rooted in biology," she grudgingly offers, "it need not be written in stone.... Yes, someone needs to remember what goes into the lunch box, but … it does not have to be Mom."

"Lean In" rarely takes men to task for enforcing professional gender imbalances. While there are a few unnamed boorish supervisors and caddish dads, Sandberg mostly describes a cadre of dedicated husbands, brothers and friends, while the high-profile men she names — like Google's Sergey Brin, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and her early champion, the economist Larry Summers — come off as almost unbelievable menschen.

But Sandberg isn't letting men off the hook; she's just using positive reinforcement to paint them, appealingly, not as oppressors but as potential allies — supportive mentors, colleagues, mates and fathers — and encouraging us all to model more equitable domestic arrangements for our daughters and sons. She tells women to seek out "someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home."

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