Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

by Sheryl Sandberg (with Nell Scovell). Knopf, 2013.

This well-researched and accessibly-written book is well worth every second of your precious reading time! Sheryl Sandberg has written a thoughtful and entertaining feminist primer on women in leadership that is supported by extensive research and enriched by personal story.
As a scholar, I read everything in a book--the Preface, the Acknowledgements, the Notes--and I confess that after reading the Acknowledgements, I had to pause. You see, I wrote a book a few years ago where my "research support" was a couple of undergraduate students whose arms I twisted, I had no grant funds, I hired a private editor. Worst of all, I naively accepted a contract with a publisher who classed the book as a "reference," and overpriced it to such an extent that a book about access is inaccessible to most. You can understand why my heart sank a bit when I read Sandberg's Acknowledgements. I had to wonder how many more people might have benefitted from my ideas if I'd had that kind of support.

Sandberg's support included Nell Scovell, whose regular job is as a television writer/producer and journalist. Sandberg also thanks the multiple feminist scholars who worked as research associates, notably Marianne Cooper, who is a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Now, that's some good street cred! There are also numerous other significant figures that she acknowledges, but don't misunderstand my point here.

This is Sheryl Sandberg's book. It is clear that her voice guides it. I say this with such unequivocation because I just had the privilege hearing her in-person at the 2013 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing where she shared the stage with Telle Whitney (president & CEO of the Anita Borg Institute) and Maria Klawe (president of Harvey Mudd College). On that stage, I heard the voice in Lean In.

And, the thing that actually impressed (and tremendously excited) me the most was that Sheryl Sandberg had the courage to use the F-word--feminism!

Ahhhhhhhhhh! I think I saw the heavens part and the sun beam down on my upward smiling face. The COO of Facebook actually used the word feminism? [INSERT Hallelujah, chorus, and all sorts of other religious references here.]

The power of speaking that word is incalculable. And, she didn't just do it in her book. She did it at the plenary session today. She said the word feminism outloud to a room full of thousands (4,600 people registered) of women (and men) working/teaching in computing!

It is the thing that I've felt needed to happen for many years. (That's why Chapter 1 of my book was titled Demyth-ifying Feminism: Reclaiming the F-Word.) We need to reclaim that term and teach people what it really means because as Sandberg cites in Lean In, only 24% of women in the U.S. today consider themselves feminists.

My guess is that's largely because their idea of feminism comes from the mass media stereotype of bra-burning (which never actually happened), angry, man-hating women, not from any actual study of the feminism. Thanks to the second wave of the women's movement and to the academics who fought to create women's studies departments in so many universities, feminism now has a huge body of scholarship and this work continues to develop. However, feminist scholarship remains invisible in the public eye and marginalized (and misunderstood) in higher education because we've been taught to fear it. The truth is that just like every other aspect of our knowledge tradition, feminist thought began with a few courageous thinkers upon whom others built, or with whom others vigorously debated. Like other fields, feminist thought continues to be enriched by these dialogs so that there no longer is one “feminism,” there are many.

The only thing missing from Sandberg’s analysis is a more explicit emphasis on how institutional sexism works, even though it is implicit in the data she cites and stories she tells. However, no book can do everything. An author must choose a focus, and Sandberg's focus was clearly on helping individual women understand how to liberate themselves from internalized sexism. That's a great place to begin our work together.

In addition to educating us, Sandberg also bravely allows us inside her personal journey. These types of stories are so precious, and they're especially important for women since we are still left out of most of our textbooks. There is a healing power in such stories.

We don't just need more women in leadership, we need more women in leadership who are enlightened like Sandberg. We need women who are unafraid to speak about the issues that she addresses if we're ever to disband the dysfunctional "ism" family--sexism, racism, classism, etc.--at the institutional level. That's what will pave the way for more hospitable and humane work environments, more nurturing and supportive schools, and more happy and healthy families.

But, Sandberg's personal stories are important for another reason--they show us the humanity of those we've come to see as great women. And, it's in those tender moments of honest self-revelation, those moments when we can feel another's self-doubt and empathize with their struggle, that a more just world is born.

When we begin to see each other as whole human beings (with heads AND hearts) it will be much harder to keep all kinds of prejudices alive. We will be far more likely to treat each other with respect and dignity, not as objects of someone else's desire or cogs in their industrial machine.

This work that Sandberg has engaged in--inspiring women to lean in to the things they fear--has an even larger purpose than may at first be apparent. Yes, leaning in, will help women to liberate themselves from internalized sexism. But, it will also heal their spirits as they begin to see all of the great things of which they are capable. Then, they will strive even higher.

Most importantly, when our human community can benefit more fully from the gifts, talents, creativity, compassion, and wisdom of 50% of its members, our potential will be beyond imagining. But, I think I will try to imagine. Imagine where we could be as a human species . . . just imagine. Lean in.