Book Review: “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg

If you are looking for a conversation starter, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” (amazon affiliate link) is a great choice.  I am glad I read it on the recommendation of several women I admire, but now that I’ve read it I can see where a lot of the critics are coming from.  When we initially selected “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg for our book club book, I read some online reviews and found there were those that praised Ms. Sandberg’s approach to the issue of equality for women in the workplace while others felt like her writing came from a position of a privileged career.  I dismissed the negative reviews, thinking that being a COO of Facebook shouldn’t foreclose someone from writing about workplaces in general any more than being a man would stop someone from writing about women’s issues.  You’re allowed to explore a topic even if it isn’t something you live, after all.  That said, I found the author at her most credible when she was in her element, recounting stories from her own career and relating them to the careers of similarly situated people.  The book was strong, well-documented and footnoted, an inspired me on many fronts.

It is near the end where the narrative lost me a little, but overall the book is strong.  I think Ms. Sandberg tried to address a wider audience with her concluding chapters.  The biggest light bulb moment in the book for me was where she lays out how women step onto an off ramp  career-wise when they anticipate having a family and therefore miss out on opportunities for a career that would suit a family life down the line.  If she was unapologetic about her audience being women working in the higher reaches of corporate America then I would have had no (or fewer) issues but she brings the “mommy wars” in as an afterthought and then does nothing about them.  She gives remarks about respecting women’s choices while saying they don’t really have a choice but I don’t think we can discuss equality in the workplace without addressing that corporate America in general (though her experiences with Google and Facebook are different) exploits employees.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a favorite concept of mine since I learned about it the first time and it came to mind when I was trying to put my finger on what bothered me about this book.  I am oversimplifying this, but according to Abraham Maslow, when your basic needs are not being met, you won’t seek to resolve needs that appear higher on the pyramid of needs.  So if you don’t have food, it is unlikely that you’re worried too much about whether your esteem or self-actualization needs are being met.  Applied here, the things that “Lean In” asks us to do regarding our careers and even home lives skip ahead in the hierarchy.  There’s no way that the percentage of women in the workforce that have children for whom they give care really would have time to worry about whether they are making themselves available for career advancement.

sandbergquote_ohmahdeehnessI admit that I am among the privileged parents, I am able to work largely from home (unless I have meetings or hearings) and my husband can take time off if our kids are sick.  Maybe I feel challenged by the implication that “staying home” to care for children is like stepping away from a career, and that such a choice may hurt womankind in the workplace?  Am I seeing something in the book that comes from myself and not from what the author actually is saying?  My friend Jessica recently shared with me John Updike’s rules for literary criticism (see them listed on Wikipedia) and I have been struggling with my review of this book for a while now so the last rule listed jumped out at me:

If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

(source).  Now, I think “Lean In” is very good but in trying to mentally unpack why the final chapters unsettled me I am left wondering what I feel guilty about, what riled me in the book that represents a button within me that was pushed.  I feel the tension of the false choice of the “work life balance.”  I feel the pressure of phrasing like “working mom” and “stay at home mom” – for example Ms. Sandberg writes, “Women who want to take two weeks off … or two days … or two years … or twenty years deserve everyone’s full support.” (location 2393)  When I read that I highlighted the text because even the idea that I took time “off” feels like a judgment.  Maybe it isn’t?  Maybe I’m the one that is insecure?

So much of reading this book entwined with things that were going on in my own life as I read it, so I thought the blog might be a good place to “think aloud” and organize my thoughts.  I was at a free library concert with the kids a few weekends ago and before the show started one of the children’s librarians announced that all summer, while school was out, they would be offering free lunch at the library (every day of the week except Sunday).  Food insecurity is a terrible thing to contemplate.  That there are children who have their only meals in a given day because they attend public school feels very wrong.  You may know of someone that opts to spend money one way and then rely on free services to close the gap instead of focusing on feeding their children (or making conscious choices about having children in the first place), but whatever their parents’ choices, kids don’t have any choices.  I know that the book isn’t addressing the moms that have no choices even though it attempts to acknowledge that until we have choices for both women and men then there won’t be equality.  The book also acknowledges that there are women, 50% of working mothers for example, that don’t even have vacation time and face poverty if they take time for leave.  To acknowledge these women in the fact sections of Ms. Sandberg’s arguments and then swing back instead to examples from the US Treasury, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and the like, is what made me feel like the book’s premise was on shakier ground.

Going back to Updike, however, one of the listed rules for criticism is:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

(source).  Is one book going to “solve” it all?  The title and tone of the book addresses the reader directly, male or female, and implores them to “Lean In” to whatever pursuit is their passion.  I might be struggling with the fact that I can be passionate about doing a good job, or advocating an issue, or doing right by my family but that doesn’t mean that any one or all of those things define me as a being.  Sure, a career can have fulfilling moments but do I love what I do?  Can I “Lean In” when the work I do as an attorney is perpetually adversarial (sometimes needlessly so – I’m looking at you, “scorched earth” brother and sister attorneys)?  I derive enjoyment from a job well done, but the advice I’d give a young woman early in her career would be that in the long run I don’t think title or status matters as much as just living life and seizing the moments you have now.  I work a lot in elder guardianship cases and am constantly reminded that you can work hard your whole life and your health can deteriorate suddenly and often tragically, so I’m just not sure.

My struggle with this review shows me that there was no “right” way to conclude this book, except to probably hope that some portion of it inspired the reader.  Inspired them to lift others up, to support one another, and to stop infighting when the specific goals we have are different but overall we wish only happiness and free choice for others in our national (and global) community.

Updike suggests to “Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.” (source)  I thought I’d end with my favorite highlights from the book (I love that this is a feature of e-books on Amazon’s kindle, by the way!) as I read.  Seeing them on one page brings me back from my review journey to the realization that this is certainly one (but not the only) book people with an interest in work and families should read so that they can hone their own perspectives.  I will bring one passage ahead of the rest because I would love to see the rallying cry realized in my lifetime, or at least that of my children:

Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don’t have real choice. And until men are fully respected for contributing inside the home, they don’t have real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.

(location 2371)

And now on to the other standout passages (for me):

As Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work consortium, observed, most “women are not thinking about ‘having it all,’ they’re worried about losing it all—their jobs, their children’s health, their families’ financial stability—because of the regular conflicts that arise between being a good employee and a responsible parent.”
(location 348)
Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are—impostors with limited skills or abilities.
(location 416)
In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.
(location 614)
[…] Alice Walker […] observed, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Do not wait for power to be offered. Like that tiara, it might never materialize. And anyway, who wears a tiara on a jungle gym?

(location 945)

Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest.

(location 1150)

I learned from Fred that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others.

(location 1160)

So the irony—and, to me, the tragedy—is that women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of things they did to stay in the workforce. With the best of intentions, they end up in a job that is less fulfilling and less engaging. When they finally have a child, the choice—for those who have one—is between becoming a stay-at-home mother or returning to a less-than-appealing professional situation.

(location 1382)

For most mothers, kids are not a hobby. Showering is a hobby.

(location 1577)

[…] mothers also have to endure the rude questions and accusatory looks that remind us that we’re shortchanging both our jobs and our children. As if we needed reminding. Like me, most of the women I know do a great job worrying that we don’t measure up.

(location 1821)

Instead of perfection, we should aim for sustainable and fulfilling. The right question is not “Can I do it all?” but “Can I do what’s most important for me and my family?” The aim is to have children who are happy and thriving.
(location 2072)
Every social movement struggles with dissension within its ranks, in part because advocates are passionate and unlikely to agree on every position and solution.
(location 2414)
Society has long undervalued the contributions of those who work without a salary.

(location 2499)

When Gloria Steinem marched in the streets to fight for the opportunities that so many of us now take for granted, she quoted Susan B. Anthony, who marched in the streets before her and concluded, “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make them ungrateful so they keep going.”27 The sentiment remains true today. We need to be grateful for what we have but dissatisfied with the status quo. This dissatisfaction spurs the charge for change. We must keep going.

(location 2566)

Sheryl Sandberg is donating all of her income from this book to establish Lean In, a nonprofit organization that encourages women to lean in to their ambitions.

(location 3814)


Thanks for reading!  I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book in the comments!

6 thoughts on “Book Review: “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg

  1. Great review Homa. I’m glad you found the book thought provoking. As to your comments about the ending — I don’t think she was aiming for an “end,” but rather a beginning. I think she is simply trying to bring attention to some of the issues she has personally experienced and witnessed. I think she intended it to be the starting point. Her Lean In organization will hopefully be able to address some of the issues over time. I also love that the profits from the book all go to this non-profit — hence her commitment to this issue.


    1. I think that reading that the profits were going to her organization was an encouraging thing for me to read as well – she certainly seems passionate about doing something to help with the issues she presented in the book. I had someone ask me if the book was mainly for mothers and I realized maybe that is the tricky aspect of how anyone would have approached this subject. Being a woman is often inextricably linked with family decisions and yet Sandberg also wants us to lean into our careers even as we have family decisions on the horizon or in the back of our minds. I like what you said about the book being a beginning. I really wanted to include an anecdote in my review about a run in someone I had where I literally made sure to take my seat at the table as Sandberg encourages but I couldn’t without touching on confidences, so the book really had a positive impact on me already!


  2. It is so interesting to read your review of the book, having just read it myself and discussed it during our book club. As a single woman without children but with what I feel are certain family obligations to parents, it was no doubt a very different read for me than for you. Like with the Slaughter article last year in the “Atlantic: about women not being able to “have it all,” I too felt this book was very much focused on a privileged parent/mother/woman position of a COO of Facebook. I would want to read a book from a woman in a different position in the socioeconomic strata, but the problem is those women don’t have the time necessarily to research and write a book with their most basic needs always uncertainly met. But even putting that aside, her stories while sometimes out of touch as to their context had meaning in terms of the events and emotions involved. That is what I took from this book. I loved her idea of the internal revolution, recognizing what we are feeling and thinking, what habits and anxieties we have and tracing them to their source. I felt when she wrote about those feelings of inadequacy, self doubt, fear, and shame that she was writing about feelings I had felt and was still feeling both professionally and personally. I appreciated this book in that it made me recognize those thoughts and feelings in myself and I see this reading experience as a stepping stone to other thoughts, discussions, research and reading about working on the internal struggle of being a woman whether at work or at home, with children or without, single or married. I appreciate that this book opens up a discussion that we should be having on many issues and am glad to read your thoughts about them.


    1. I like how you called it an internal revolution – there is a lot to think about in how we want to fit our work and life in general together. I remember that Atlantic article, I’d be curious to read Sandberg’s thoughts on that one! You’ll have to let me know how your next book club goes discussing the second half!


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