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Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Sheryl Sandberg
Knopf, 2013
240 pp.,

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Betty Smartt Carter

Look Before You Lean

Advice for working women.

Somewhere in America, mommies lead corporations, daddies share fifty-fifty in child-rearing duties, and au pairs pick up the slack. Supportive relatives with compelling backstories lend a hand, too. Thanks, Aunt Cindy, for watching the kids while we negotiate the merger! Even the stay-at-home mom who makes working mothers feel guilty about their Costco cupcakes serves a vital role in the corporate family economy. Without her hours of volunteer work in the school, who would have time to educate the next generation of millionaires? It takes a village to raise an internet empire!

Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is both a description of such a world (the one she occupies as the coo of Facebook) and a plea for the widening of corporate/communal values to the rest of American society. Not that Sandberg would describe it that way. Her stated goal is a generous one: to help young women overcome the internal barriers that hold them back from achieving success at the highest levels. These barriers can include worries about looking too ambitious and aggressive, the simple fear of being disliked, and a reluctance to "lean in" to a career during crucial early years before parenthood may require a period of leaning out.

Long before she hitched her wagon to Mark Zuckerberg's star, Ms. Sandberg was a bright girl hiding her light under the bushel of cultural expectations. Once out of the academic world, She discovered that the virtues molded into women from the nursery and confirmed by the culture of school (play nice! let others go first! nobody likes a know-it-all!) look like weakness in a mostly male business world of unabashed self-aggrandizement and relentless competition. With the help of powerful mentors, not to mention some very lucky timing, she made it to the highest echelons of corporate life, but she learned a hard social fact along the way: women who behave as aggressively as their male counterparts often get labeled as bitchy and uncooperative. Like it or not, women's best hope of succeeding in business is to play to traditional female strengths: openly showing empathy for colleagues, for instance, or pitching their own skills in terms of how they can best serve the company rather than why the company will tank without them. Women tend to think more communally, and communal values can succeed in the new, more flexible workplace (you know, that one we've all heard about with the jungle gym instead of the monkey bars) as long as men are willing to share the work at home.

Sandberg's emphasis on women's internal barriers versus political and social ones has struck some feminist readers as a "blame the victim" approach. Other reviewers discount any advice from someone so outrageously successful; what can a woman with a billion in the bank, a supportive husband, and a household staff have to say to a struggling single mom, for instance, or a Wal-Mart associate just hoping to snag enough hours to qualify for insurance?

I get those criticisms, sour grapes-ish though they may be. I also think Sandberg's book is culture-specific to America's northern and western centers of power. If she lived in my southern hometown, where the calendar is always stuck on 1985, she might have to write a different book: Lie Down: Women, Work, and the Desperate Need for Sleep After Doing It All By Yourself.

But personally I'd rather look past Sandberg's fairly anodyne advice, which is probably sound for women living in the urban archipelago where corporate America resides. Given that she's a major operator in a hugely influential and connected company, the rest of us better take heed of what lies behind all her good-natured, Big Sisterish zeal to make the world a better place, as she says, for all of us.

Sandberg's deepest conviction is that both men and women should have a full range of choices regarding careers and child-raising. She allows that many women as well as many men may choose to stay home and do the oh so important job of raising the next generation (I guess they'll also be staffing that bake sale at the school, side by side with the Sandbergs' nanny). For the most part, though, she's thinking of two parents hard at work on big careers, tucking the kids in at night and then jumping back on their laptops till midnight and catching planes in the morning. It's a grueling life, but the Sandbergs of the world manage to keep at it.

And why? What ends justify such sacrifices of ordinary family life (time with children, care of elderly parents, trying all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking or whatever)? If the pay-offs were a cure for cancer and a solution to global warming, that would be one thing; but the benefits of so much corporate busy-ness usually don't amount to much in human terms. Phones get smarter, packaged food travels farther, and more people in India can like each other's statuses. Meanwhile, with the inevitable corporate expansion of technology and efficiency (because businesses are in this to make money—not to make the world a better place for everyone), the space for small-scale human life begins to shrink.

Like many Americans, I do feel my heart swell at the picture of free people enjoying as many unfettered choices as possible, without having to answer to majority cultures or oppressive governments or any other tyrannies that crush individual lives. I see the attraction of Sandberg world: a place where the old gender/work divisions are nothing but the lingering scent of fields and woods—part of our agricultural heritage. We can ignore those, right? We can all choose to do what we like no matter who we are and what our parents believed fifty years ago.

Maybe so, but in seeking a wider range of choices in our lives, women and men sometimes forget that the truths we dedicate our lives to matter more than the balance of fairness we achieve in the pursuit of them. "Lean in!" Sheryl Sandberg says. But lean in to what? Into an inbox full of mail? Or ultimately into some technological void where we're all working day and night to create things of little lasting beauty or value—things that may even be harmful to the people we love.

Leaning may be a good thing—unless you're already pulling the wagon toward a cliff.

Betty Smartt Carter writes fiction and teaches Latin in Alabama.

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