Skip to main content
Stephanie Coontz's picture

Sheryl Sandberg's well-researched new book, Lean In, focuses on helping women who aspire to careers identify and overcome negative societal messages they have internalized over the years – old scripts that undermine women’s self-confidence and hold them back from achieving their full potential on the job.

It's not every day that a high-achieving woman proclaims herself a feminist, so I have been surprised by the amount of venom heaped on Sandberg’s book. Some commentators complain that Sandberg places too little emphasis on the institutional barriers and prejudices that stand in the way of women’s struggle for equality and that she “blames the victim” when she points out things women do -- or fail to do -- that hold us back from exercising leadership roles. Others charge that Sandberg’s advice for overcoming these socially-ingrained habits is only relevant to women with jobs where individual initiative is rewarded and with partners who will step up to the plate when asked to share family responsibilities.

It’s true that Sandberg’s book is addressed primarily to highly educated business and professional women whose employers have a stake in retaining their skills and whose partners tend to be more egalitarian in outlook than many other men. For that reason, the ideal companion volume to Lean In is The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle, by Joan Williams and Heather Boushey, which lays out the range of problems facing less privileged women.

But Sandberg does not discount the external barriers facing women. Nor is she unconcerned with the well-being of less affluent women. Lean In is nothing like The Secret, the Oprah-endorsed 2006 best-seller that claimed failure to achieve wealth and happiness is caused by lack of positive thinking.

Sandberg points to the absence of subsidized parental leaves, flexible work policies, and quality child care as major obstacles to achieving gender equality in the workplace. She also documents the persistent discrimination against women in society and the workplace. And she explicitly states that overturning these barriers is just as important as changing our own behavior and attitudes.

But Sandberg has chosen to focus on the ingrained attitudes and values that undermine women’s self-confidence and produce behaviors that hold them back even in situations where they might otherwise be able to circumvent the external obstacles. In doing so, she is following a long-standing feminist tradition that insists on the need to challenge our own internalized habits of submission and dependence.

Fifty years ago Betty Friedan took the same tack when she published The Feminine Mystique. Instead of focusing on the structural demands that she and her colleagues would raise three years later when they founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, Friedan began by trying to raise the consciousness of middle-class housewives. She argued that a set of myths about femininity and family life had led many women to make a “mistaken choice” -- failing to pursue the education or meaningful work that would allow them to grow as human beings.

I don’t think Lean In is the new Feminine Mystique. But I do see it as following up with the next stage of consciousness-raising for the modern counterparts of Friedan’s suburban housewives.

Today, Sandberg argues, a new generation of middle-class women has achieved unprecedented success in pursuing educational excellence and entering new careers. However, many of them still hold internalized stereotypes that make them doubt their capacities, sell their own talents short, or mistakenly conclude they cannot successfully raise children while remaining committed to a career.

Rather than blaming women, Sandberg points out that many such self-defeating attitudes and behaviors stem from the double standards women face. For instance, women are much less likely than men to negotiate their starting pay, and as a result they often fall ever further behind in their salaries as the years progress. But one reason for this hesitation is that women who negotiate for higher salaries or emphasize their own accomplishments are judged more unfavorably than men who do the same -- and are often penalized in hiring and promotion decisions. Sandberg persuasively catalogues the way such dynamics hold women back and offers useful advice for getting around the traps and double binds that women face.

Sandberg recognizes that she is talking to a privileged section of workers. But she believes that as more women crack the glass ceiling, they will be better able –- and more motivated –- to improve the prospects for less-privileged women.

I am not convinced that increasing the “critical mass” of women in leadership positions will have the positive results Sandberg foresees for a company’s secretaries, receptionists, and janitors –- much less for the low-paid child-care workers that middle-income employees rely on in the absence of a comprehensive, subsidized childcare system.

But even if Sandberg is wrong on this point, that is no reason to attack her well-researched exploration of how aspiring career women can overcome the negative habits and mind-sets with which we’ve been indoctrinated. Indeed the book’s endnotes, answering myths about the impact of maternal employment and day care on children, are worth its price on their own.

I doubt Sandberg would claim that her book, or the “lean-in” circles she hopes will help women ascend the job ladder, are “the” answer for all of America’s working women. So I am puzzled by the degree of anger that her book has provoked.

Even if you disagree with Sandberg’s particular emphasis, wouldn’t it be better to focus one’s fire on the politicians and employers who keep the United States dead last in work-family accommodation policies among all the major industrial powers in the world than to attack a corporate leader who concedes that the playing field is still not equal and has some interesting ideas about how to help other women succeed?

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!