Are Critics Wrong About Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”?

March 28, 2013  |  

When I heard Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg would be releasing a book that was designed to also start a movement toward more women leaders, I was eager to see if Sandberg’s message of “leaning in” would resonate with me.

Before I could get my hands on a copy of the book (there was a wait list at my local library), I read several critiques, with most saying that she was too privileged, too out-of-touch to really understand the concerns of today’s working mothers. So already I wondered if this woman, who has an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion, could relate to the stress of working because you absolutely have to, as opposed to because you enjoy the work.

I felt as though her critics hadn’t bothered to read the introduction, where she, quite plainly, states that she realizes she has more resources than the average woman and that her experiences in boardrooms across America sets her apart from 90% of the moms reading her book. As long as she acknowledges her privilege, I’m fine with it. Everybody won’t be able to relate to everyone else.

However, there were some points where I felt her critics were right, particularly in the chapter about marriage and how choosing the right partner makes all the difference. I agreed with her general premise—that you need to marry someone who supports you 100% and isn’t afraid to take on responsibility so you can soar—but some of her examples of couples who go to bat for one another weren’t very relatable to me, or any other mother I know. For example, she talks about the fact that while she was pregnant, she lived in a different city than her husband and that it was very difficult (all I could think was: You could afford two households?). But their solution was for her husband to move the headquarters of his company (where he was CEO) closer to where she lived. If only it was that easy for so many of us.

Still, I don’t want to make it seem like the book was useless. It wasn’t. Sandberg talks about the small ways women diminish themselves, from sitting at the edge of the room, to not raising their hand to speak, to not taking the initiative to negotiate for themselves. She cites instances where women second-guess themselves and don’t speak up during a meeting or where they think of themselves as “lucky” versus “talented.” I’ve seen a few of my own career mistakes laid out in the book and I cringed every time I could point to one of Sandberg’s examples and say, “Yup, I’ve done that.”

Her overarching message is simple: Women, we are powerful. We matter. And we should be successful in whatever we choose. She makes a few cursory mentions of stay-at-home moms she really admires, but for the most part, she is speaking the woman who is aspiring to the top of the totem pole.

I have career ambition (my husband may or may not call me a workaholic) and I try to balance everything on my plate. While it’s not easy, it’s necessary for me.

I’m one of those women who feels fulfilled by having a career in addition to motherhood, but I know for most of the women in my family, current generation and those who came before me, working long hours was not a choice. It was necessary to help keep the household afloat. We’ve been “leaning in” for centuries. While Sandberg’s message is helping women shatter those internal barriers that keep us from rising up the ranks, work still needs to be done those institutional barriers that keep so many of us from trying at all.

Tara Pringle Jefferson is the founder of and the author of Make It Happen: The Young Mommy Guide To Creating The Career You Crave. Follow her on Twitter or check out her blog for her insights on what it means to be a mom, wife, student, writer, and about three other labels she’s too tired to remember.

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