The Chief Problem With 'Lean In'

Anne Applebaum reviews Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and assesses it as a pile of poorly considered, self-contradictory huckster cliches.

[I]t’s absolutely true, only twenty-one Fortune 500 CEOs are females. But is this really a major social problem? Is this an issue that “transcends all of us”? Does the solution require “reigniting the revolution,” and does it mean men and women alike must rethink their lives and priorities? To put it differently, would the world be very different for women—or for men—if two hundred and fifty Fortune 500 CEOs were female?

To the last question, the answer—purely on the evidence of Sandberg’s book—is no.

I am not the first person to notice that Lean In does not propose any concrete changes to corporate or public policy in order to accommodate women in top jobs, with a single exception. When she was at Google, Sandberg had trouble finding a parking place at the company headquarters one day. Heavily pregnant, nauseous, she barely made it to her meeting. The next day “I marched in—or more like waddled in—to see Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their office.” Finding Sergey “in a yoga position in the corner,” she announced that the company needed pregnancy parking, “preferably sooner rather than later.” He agreed immediately.

Other than that, this book provides no evidence that Sandberg’s presence at the top of the company has directly altered the corporate culture of either Google or Facebook. She does speak vaguely of more tolerance for parental duties, family-friendly working hours, and sharing tasks with husbands (as noted, she does not mention nannies, after-school programs, or day care). But she gives no examples of where or how this has been successfully transformed into a company policy. At the same time, all of her personal anecdotes show her working harder, longer hours than anyone else and accepting bigger, tougher challenges. Generally, she advocates adjusting one’s life to the punishing routine of corporate success rather than vice versa. That’s what she did, and that’s what successful men do too.

As Applebaum provocatively concludes,

[T]he real crisis facing America today is not the dearth of women bosses, but the dearth of men at all levels except at the very top …. The impact on the poor is already visible: the number of children who live in families headed by single mothers is at an all-time high, despite the evidence that children in such families have worse educational, financial, and psychological outcomes. Though it may be unavoidable, single motherhood generally isn’t good for the mothers either: raising children alone can be stressful and exhausting, maybe even more stressful and exhausting than running a large company. Sandberg has said many times that successful women must be sure to marry the right sort of man: helpful, respectful of her career, willing to split household tasks 50–50. But it will be difficult, if not impossible, for women to “dream the possible dream” if there are not merely few helpful men to marry, but few marriageable men at all