Here’s a question: can you judge a book by it’s cover? The answer is no, even if most people do it anyway. It can pay off to look beyond your first impression, especially when it comes to getting the most out of a book.
Case in point: Facebook COO and former Google VP Sheryl Sandberg gave a memorable TED talk in 2010, emphasizing the need for more women leaders and calling out the challenges women face in the workplace. That passionate speech became the basis for Sandberg’s new feminist manifesto hitting stores on March 12th, Lean In, a book I fear may fall short of its deserved audience because the subject matter could turn many people off before they make it to the content.
A combination of data, personal anecdotes, observations, and advice, Lean In's overarching point is that many women have a tendency to “check out” in their careers years in advance of motherhood, anticipating the need to pull back eventually. While men tend to forge ahead, women hang back and accept lower salaries, smaller responsibilities, and fewer promotions to save their energy for domestic pursuits. In her book, Sandberg coaches women to “lean in” rather than pull back to achieve the success they deserve and create a richer and stronger workforce.
My initial reaction to the premise of Lean In brought up the similar defensive feelings I had over reading The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts in 2007. Bennetts, like Sandberg, wrote her book with the best of intentions to champion feminism. Despite the part of me that agreed wholeheartedly with the concept, I wondered why women repeatedly hear we aren’t doing enough.
The Feminine Mistake relied on fear tactics (Lean In does not), and addressed the risks for women of tossing aside their careers: financial ruin after divorce or death of a spouse, over-parenting their kids, and possible lower self-worth. The Feminine Mistake frightened me but didn’t change my decisions over how to live my life.
Ironically, Lean In has so far elicited the exact response that Sandberg anticipated and plays a large role why women fail in the workplace. Female reviewers are already trashing the book before it hits stores, claiming Sandberg is too privileged to understand the ordinary woman. Her harshest critics claim she wrote the book to line her own pocketbook and boost her celebrity. And men? Mostly ignoring it. I’ve even heard anecdotes of male editors who contribute to “best of” lists refusing to consider Lean In because it doesn’t “interest” them. Come on! A big part of the reason we don’t have more women leaders is that many women (not all) tear other women down, and many (not all) men dismiss women as unequal or focus on their sexuality.
What’s great about Lean In, and what you won’t get by giving it just a casual glance, is the way Sandberg addresses the finer points of navigating the workplace and home life for women and makes suggestions about how to make small changes in big ways. For instance, Sandberg found that for a woman negotiating a raise, the most effective method was acknowledging that women don’t often do it and framing it to employers as an awareness of that widespread issue and that the point of negotiating is for “women everywhere,” rather than just for the individual. Meaning women, much more than men, need to use “we” language in the workplace. She also recommends women never ask people to be their mentors because it’s off-putting to senior executives. Instead she recommends subtler ways to forge a connection and inspire the top dogs to take an interest in you on their own.
While Sandberg’s personality, experiences, and inner life remain obscure in this book (sometimes she portrays herself as insecure, other times she describes bossing around her siblings like they’re her staff), the wisdom she possesses is on full display. Both for men and women, it would be a mistake to judge this book by its cover. There are solid nuggets of gold between the pages.