In the weeks leading up to the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, critics had plenty of comments on the Facebook chief operating officer’s ideas about being a woman in the workplace—even though few had actually read the tome. Many of the resulting discussions bizarrely mischaracterized what Lean In was about, tossing around misleading headlines, inaccurate facts, and unfair assumptions.
As it turns out, not even a fairly average entry into the world of corporate advice books is immune from double standards.
Sandberg intersperses personal anecdotes from her remarkable career (a vice-presidency at Google, serving as the U.S. Treasury’s chief of staff during the Clinton administration) with observations, research, and pragmatic advice for how women can better achieve professional and personal success. She urges women to “lean in” to their careers, and to be “ambitious in any pursuit.” Lean In is competently written and blandly interesting, and it does repeat a great deal of familiar research—although it isn’t particularly harmful to be reminded of the challenges women face as they try to get ahead.
Intentionally or not, much of the book is a stark reminder of the many obstacles women face in the workplace. I cannot deny that parts of it resonated, particularly in Sandberg’s discussion about “impostor syndrome” and how women are less willing to take advantage of potential career opportunities unless they are wholly qualified.
But Sandberg is rigidly committed to the gender binary, and Lean In is exceedingly heteronormative. Professional women are largely defined in relation to professional men; Lean In‘s loudest unspoken advice seems to dictate that women should embrace masculine qualities (self-confidence, risk-taking, aggression, etc.). Occasionally, this advice backfires, because it seems as if Sandberg is advocating, “If you want to succeed, be an asshole.” In addition, Sandberg generally assumes women will want to fulfill professional ambitions while also marrying a man and having children. [...]