by Samantha Plotner
Sheryl Sandberg has gotten a lot of flack since the release of her book Lean In. Beyond all the media hoopla, however, is a book every young woman (and man) should read. Sandberg draws on a combination of personal experience and management research, which makes her book rooted in fact, as well as occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Sandberg faces many of the critiques of her arguments head on (in particular, that her points may leave out non-professional working women) in a way many reviews haven’t given her credit for.
For those of you who have seen her 2011 Barnard commencement address, the book is an expansion of the points she made to that senior class. Sandberg actually credits the experience of giving a commencement speech at Barnard as her inspiration to write Lean In. It is also enlightening to hear about the reactions she received as she started to talk about women’s workplace issues more publicly, and how the sometimes negative reactions she’s received has only reinforced her resolve. She openly admits to not always seeing the problem, in particular when she was our age, when she used to reject calling herself a feminist. In the book, she explains why she didn’t call herself a feminist in college — a rationale very familiar to the reasons I’ve heard from other college-aged women.
For anyone who doubts that there is a problem, Sandberg does pretty quick work of showing that there is, demonstrating both the internal and external barriers women face in the workplace and addressing both throughout the book.
The biggest argument she makes on the internal level uses a phrase from her Barnard commencement address, “don’t leave before you leave.” By this she means don’t start pulling back in anticipation of children way in advance. She illustrates her point with an anecdote about a young female employee who came into her office full of questions about balancing family and work. Thinking the woman was pregnant, Sandberg asked, only to find out she was not even dating anyone and children were years down the line. Sandberg believes the threat of this is that you start scaling back before you need to, leaving you with an unfulfilling job once you return from maternity leave. Sandberg argues that that will make leaving your child even harder. If you don’t have a job that you enjoy or feel challenged in and you have the option to stay at home, you’ll pick being with your child over an unfulfilling position.
The reason I would recommend this book to college men as well is because Sandberg continually argues that men need be involved in the conversation for anything to change. For example, senior men need to make the effort to mentor and support junior women in the same way they do for the young men who remind them of themselves. Most important for the men of our generation is Sandberg’s emphasis on equality in the home. She highlights the persistent problem of the “second shift” where women do more than their share of housework and childcare. For true equality to happen in the workplace, men need to step up at home, and women need to let them.
I strongly recommend every Barnard woman read Lean In. You may not agree with everything Sandberg says but her perspective is enlightening. It is only in reading the entire book that you will understand the complexities of what she is saying, reflecting the complexities of the world we’re entering. She doesn’t sugarcoat the issues, but instead tries to prepare us for the reality of being a professional woman, and the ways in which we can try to make things better for our generation.
Samantha Plotner just graduated from Barnard and was Senior Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing!