Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, has been both embraced and criticized. Around the table, as a newly formed general counsel chapter of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario gathered to meet recently, there was no criticism. The comments were all positive. The phrase “lean in” was used regularly with the expectation that we all understood what was meant. The first president of the chapter, Julia Shin Doi, general counsel at Ryerson University, has quoted the line from the book, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” as being a source of inspiration to her.
When talking about the book’s effect on her, Marni Dicker, general counsel at Infrastructure Ontario, points to the part of the book where a pregnant Sheryl Sandberg becomes angry at the lack of parking for expecting mothers. When she expresses that viewpoint, Sandberg’s then-boss quickly agrees it’s a good idea, indicating he hadn’t thought of it. Sandberg’s view is that there are many things like this that male leaders may not have thought of, not out of malice but out of sheer inadvertence.
Dicker says one of the things she has taken from Lean In is that senior women leaders are in a unique position to identify issues affecting women in the work place and to give voice to them. The book has prompted her to try harder to identify opportunities to support women in the workplace.
Imagine the impact if all senior women take away these sorts of lessons from Lean In — there will be transformation at the personal level and in workplaces everywhere.
Sandberg’s goal was to start a conversation about women and leadership and getting more women into leadership roles. She’s succeeded. Lean In encourages women to take control of their own careers and not let their own fears, assumptions, and lack of confidence get in the way. It gives voice to thoughts and feelings that many women have but cannot or do not articulate. It encourages women leaders to be advocates for women in the workplace and to take actions previously considered to be outside the scope of the possible or personally detrimental. Lean In encourages women to address the barriers that women face and tells us it’s okay to say “I am a feminist” in the workplace.
It’s a helpful book and it’s great that Sandberg gave the conversation new life. So why are there concerns? Sandberg’s basic premise is that “[c]onditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” It raises a concern with which feminists have grappled for years — to avoid making discrimination and inequality problems for women to fix and to avoid marginalizing issues by describing them as “women’s issues.” By calling on female leaders to be the ones to notice and address problems like the issue of parking for expecting mothers, Sandberg is arguably putting the onus on those female leaders to fix the problem and in so doing, letting others off the hook. It’s equating simple challenges like a lack of parking for pregnant women with much more thorny challenges like cultural biases against female styles of leadership. It assumes that female leaders are in a position to identify what other female workers need in order to be able to “lean in.” It assumes that when women leaders notice a problem and attempt to address it, they will be heard — the truth is that sometimes female leaders have the willingness, wisdom, skills, ability, and power to effect change and sometimes they don’t.
Another concern expressed by a junior in-house counsel who was, as a private practice lawyer, strongly encouraged to read the book by her firm, is that the book’s advice only applies to wealthy women who can afford to buy all the support they need — essentially paying to remove the barriers they may face. Wealth doesn’t only allow a woman to buy support and pay to remove barriers, it also gives that woman choices and power that a woman with less resources simply doesn’t have.
These concerns and others are valid but Sandberg doesn’t pretend they are not. She acknowledges that the battle to improve opportunities for women is one that has to be fought on many fronts — and that there are both internal and external barriers. Her focus is on the internal barriers women erect for themselves and on the ways in which women in leadership roles can help themselves and others. Her book isn’t presented as the answer — it’s part of the answer, and as long as we understand the full answer is more complex and don’t expect women to solve the equality problem alone, we can celebrate the book as a mainstream and accessible source of inspiration for positive change.