Lean In: A Critical Review

lean in

In Lean In (2013) author Sheryl Sandberg shares her story and her views on gender issues and workplace inequalities, while also providing guidance and career advice for women.

Bullet Summary

  • Progress has slowed for women and lately, it’s been getting worse
  • Women are naturally less confident and ambitious and should strive for more
  • Society and men should accept that it’s also men’s duties to care for children
  • Women should stick together because that’s more power

Lean In Summary

About the Author: Sheryl Kara Sandberg is an American technology executive who worked at Google, and then at Facebook as the company’s COO.
She also gained popularity and media exposure for being an advocate of women in business, and an outspoken commenter of gender issues.

Double Standard: Ambitious Women Are Disliked

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In often comes back to this central tenet of the book:

Society holds a double standard for men and women.

She says that men are expected to be aggressive and ambitious and people don’t usually hold it against them.
But when it’s a woman, things change. And both men and women tend to dislike an overly ambitious woman.

Successful women are also seen with suspicion, and Sheryl Sandberg cites the experiment of similar CVs of a successful man and woman. But while the man’s success was appealing, the woman’s success was worrisome.

That much is true indeed, and it’s one of the central points of my article the real reason why Hillary Clinton lost.

Women Should Assert More

A good chunk of the book is good psychology on the differences between men and women.

Sheryl Sandberg says that women tend to have less self-esteem and react differently than men to win and losses.
In victory men are more likely to think they ave done while women look for more external causes and “circumstances”. In loss, women tend to shoulder the full blame and to think that they are not good enough while men look at external circumstances and at scapegoats (see: political players).

The author also says that women have a higher degree of impostor syndrome, such as the feeling of not being good enough for the role they have.

My Note: True, but should be done strategically
I agree that some women are too lacking in assertiveness and confidence to have a good career.
Sometimes though it felt like Lean In was exhorting women to become more like men. I would advise women instead to seek a balance. Also, see Fran Hauser’s “The Myth of The Nice Girl“.
Or consider Robert Greene’s approach in
The Laws of Human Nature, recommending that men and women become aware of their pros and cons by merging the two genders’ advantages into one.

Don’t Let Family Planning Stop You

The author says that too many women allow family planning to curtail their potential and possibilities, often becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, a woman thinking of having a baby might not apply for higher positions, turn down important projects or outright refuse promotions.
What happens though is that having a baby often takes longer than most expect and in the meanwhile she is not growing -not herself and neither her career-.
When she eventually wants to go back to work, she should do so in a position that does not challenge her, which makes her less willing to go back at all.

Instead, Sheryl Sandberg proposes that before she is actually pregnant and must -or want- to go on maternity leave, she keeps growing and going fro all the high visibility and stretch positions that she can.
I like this approach.

lean in

Lean In Criticism

There are good reflections and some great tips for women’s careers in “Lean In”.
But there is also a complete disregard of basic psychology, human nature, and biology driving the behaviors she criticizes. And I disagree with several of her conclusions.
let’s go in order:

#1. It’s Not Ambitious Women Who Are Disliked, But Masculine Women

Sheryl Sandberg says that ambitious women are disliked.

She is not totally wrong.
But not correct, either.
It’s women who look overly ambitious, and masculine, who are disliked.

And it’s the same for men. Men who seem to act like women are also disliked.

In my article how to walk sexy for men I share a video of how an extreme feminine walk looks like.
The reaction of men to that walk is one of tremendous disgust:

Now this might not be “fair”, and albeit I’m not a big fan of “fair talk”, it’s true: it’s not fair and not cool.

But the good news, which is what Sandberg does not talk about and which is most important to women, is that women can be ambitious if they present in the right way.

Also read:

#2. Men & Women Are Not Equal When it Comes to Child-Rearing

Sheryl Sandberg notes that women are more likely to take work leaves when a baby is born.

Does anyone find that strange?

She also states that society should accept that it’s OK for men to do the child-rearing as well while the woman pursues her career.
I’m not a big fan of “society should” do this or that, but I get her point.

But she never stops to consider that mothers are more important than fathers for children.
Part of it might be culture, definitely, since children see their friends that are closer to their mothers and expect the same for them. Yet, culture doesn’t develop in a vacuum. Cultures often stem from biology and inborn tendencies as well.
Women have historically taken care of children because, obviously, they deliver them and because, later, they suckle them.

That’s one of the reasons why the maternal bond is usually stronger than the paternal bond. Saying or implying the two parents are the same is a failure of understanding basic biology and developmental psychology.

Mothers can both do more good for children or, when the parenting is off, also more damage (a good book as an example for the latter is “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?“).

To be clear: this is not to say that women have to keep taking care of the children. I’m pretty sure children can turn out awesome even with just their fathers.
But it says, again, that Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” fails to truly analyze -and understand- basic truths of life.
There is a reason why all societies show a tendency for women to take care of children and for men to take care of the providing.

#3. Failure of Understanding Basic Human Nature & Psychology

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In questions (complains?) the current gender split in top job positions, about double standards and about, basically, “how things are”.

Yet the answers always seem to be a big “it’s unfair”.
It never questions whether or not there deep reasons behind the current state of affairs.
It never considers different biology, psychology, and sexual needs.
It does not consider that there are biological and sexual reasons why men are more driven.
Men need to amass more resources for competing in the sexual marketplace and for securing a woman. Women don’t have nearly as much a need.

Male and female different drives and needs are often deep-rooted and they won’t change because Sheryl Sadzerbg wiggles a judgmental finger with her recurrent “women/men should” and “society should”.

For the sake of clarity: this is not to say that things should stay the same. Cultures change and, with time, our drives and nature changes as well -the latter not within our current lifespan though-.
But Sheryl Sandberg never addresses the underlying principles: she stops at the top layer. And in that, in my opinion, fails to deliver meaningful insights and information.

For a better overview, see:

#4. True Equality is NOT 50/50

Sheryl says that a sign of true equality will only happen when business ownership and business executive positions will be equally split between men and women.

To me, that’s not a sign of equality in any way.
Equality is equality for opportunities, and then let the final “split” be decided by market forces and, even more importantly, by personal preferences.
And not, like the author say, by “committing to change the leadership ratio”, which is deeply un-meritocratic.

Equality enforced by a 50/50 gender split is not equality, not meritocracy and not something a healthy society must strive for.

Since it’s like that more women want to stay close to their children as compared to men and since more men are on average more hungry for power and upward social mobility, it’s likely that the split might not be 50/50.
But it doesn’t have to be 50/50 to live in a society that provides equality of opportunity.

Again, this is another fundamental failure of understanding of basic human nature.

#5. Men Less Successful Than Women is An “Ego Thing”?

Sheryl Sandberg states that men fearing more successful female partners do so out of an “ego issue”

Part of it is ego indeed but, again, the author fails to question the reasons why that is the case.
Since most have it, then we need to look for deeper causes. And the deeper cause is evolution. Evolution shaped men that way. It’s possible to speculate that men don’t want more successful women because, deep down, they know that women would not respect them. It’s a well-known fact indeed that women want men who are “more” than they are (female hypergamy).
And men, righteously so, are worried about partners who are “more” than they are.

Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to marry men who are more “equals”, again failing to realize that women really pine after men who are better than they are.

#5. Tribalist and Sectarian Mindset

I quote straight from the Lean In book:

We need to look out for one another, work together, and act more like a coalition.
As individuals, we have relatively low levels of power. Working together we are 50% of the world population and therefore have real power.

Quote from Lean In

We should strive to resolve our differences quickly, and when we disagree, stay focused on our shared goals

Sheryl Sandberg

There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women

Lean In, quoting Madeleine Albright

There is much more talk of coalitions and “common fight”, including a story where the author expected an ally in another woman but felt betrayed when her colleague was hostile.
Now, being hostile sucks. But did she expect an ally just because it was another woman?

I really dislike this tribal mentality of “fighting together?”.
Tribalism almost always indirectly implies an out-group, an enemy to fight.
But fighting against whom?

No, we don’t need more tribes, sects and barriers, we need more bridges and more empathy for fellow humans, not for humans who are the same color, have the same sexual organs.

I am a guy, so I realize that it’s easy to think I am biased.
Yet I have the exact same criticism for male authors and for men who exhort to do the same with other men, like in:

Ultimately, the author does include also men, but it feels like it’s a perfunctory olive branch. And of course, only for men who espouse her worldview.

I invite the reader to read the manifesto of individualism:

#6. Women Should be More Like Men?

In the end, Sheryl’s receipt for a “better world” is for men to be more like women and for women to be more like men.

I believe there is great power in acquiring cross-gender qualities and traits, but I believe it’s best achieved while sticking mostly to one’s own gender.
Why for example should women become men with a skirt when they can leverage their own strengths to achieve success, maybe even opening their own business instead of bending backwards to fit into men’s businesses?

Also, consider that women who become too masculine in the way Sheryl seems to recommend lose points in the dating arena, and that’s one more reason why women tend to be less aggressive than men: it’s a sexual strategy -also read strong women VS submissive women in dating-.
And of course Sheryl Sandberg never warns women of the risks that being less feminine carries in the sexual marketplace.

Real Life Applications

There are a lot of good takeaways here for women who seek a successful career.
For example:

Negotiate With “We”
Since both men and women don’t really like very assertive women, it’s a good idea for women to negotiate from a “we” perspective rather than “I”

Pick Fast Growth Companies
It will be challenging, but it will give you so many more opportunities.

CONS

For a more complete review read the “Lean In Criticism” paragraph. On top of that, I didn’t like the following:

Shoulding All Over The Place
Lean In is huge on shoulds. What women should do, what men should do, what society should accept. I really don’t like that attitude.

One-Sided Look to Discrimination
there are disadvantages to being a woman, for sure. And this book explored all of them and then some. But there are also advantages, and the fact that Sandberg barely mentions any is not a badge of impartiality.

PROS

There is much good in Lean In, including:

Good Text for Career Women
“Lean In” is a good book for women seeking a successful career, and the author knows a thing or two about a successful career.
For more, read:

Some more wisdom on political savvy would have helped, but then again, “Lean In” wasn’t meant as a career strategy book.

Differences Between Men & Women
Lean In is a good text to understand some of the differences between male and female brains.

Good Psychology on “Intra-Gender Warfare”
I liked some of Sheryl Sandberg’s analysis of women’s animosity against women.
She says that many women who make it in a man’s world resent other women and try to push them down.
That was on point.

Lean In Audio-Review

For people who prefer an audio and video summaries, here is a Lean In video review:

Lean In Review

There is lots of good in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”.
There is some good psychology, and there are great tips on career strategies for driven women.
And I would recommend driven women to put “Lean In” in their reading lists.

Yet, for a book that is so popular and so well written and for a woman who is so accomplished I expected more in terms of psychology, sociological understanding, and even on strategical thinking.
To me, there is rather appalling lack of understanding of basic principles of human nature.

Sharyl Sadlberg says she’s not a scholar nor a sociologist. It shows. But that’s not an excuse to remain ignorant of the deeper picture.

Finally, same as I do for men exhorting men to “stick together”, I also deeply regretted the sectarian mindset that women should “band together”.

Also see:

Or get this book on Amazon

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