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What Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Meant for Women


When communications strategist Amy Bailey read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” it was 2013. The #MeToo movement had yet to explode, shining a light on the abuse women can face in the workplace . The term #girlboss was out of fashion. And the question of how Facebook might affect democracy was not the focus.

“It gave me this boost of courage,” said Ms. Bailey, 46, who lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, referring to Ms. Sandberg’s book. “It struck that feminist chord in me – if you push harder, if you just ask for more, someone will notice.”

Almost a decade later, Ms Bailey said she had been denied raises, pumped milk from her office smoking room and curtailed her professional ambitions, acknowledging the challenge of balancing work with motherhood. She also soured on the Lean In philosophy which taught her that a little courage was all she needed to succeed in her career.

“That’s just not true,” she said. “Nobody ever tapped me on the shoulder because I did more and was better prepared.”

On Wednesday, Ms Sandberg announced she was stepping down as chief operating officer of Facebook’s parent company Meta – the boom that made her one of the most prominent women in American business. She had held the position for five years when she published “Lean In,” and her singular role and success in Silicon Valley helped amplify the book’s message.

For many women, “Lean In” has been a bible, a roadmap to corporate life. Many others have come to understand its limitations or see it as a symbol of what is wrong with applying people-centered solutions to systemic issues that hold women back in the workplace, especially women of color and low-income women. And Ms. Sandberg’s departure, for all of those readers, is a moment to reflect on how “Lean In” has shaped their careers.

When “Lean In” was released in 2013, landing on the bestseller list and propelling Ms. Sandberg to the covers of Time and Fortune, just 4% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies were women. The book sold over four million copies in five years. The Lean In Foundation has supported the creation of thousands of Lean In Circles where women, especially those early in their careers, have turned to Ms. Sandberg’s advice as a guide.

The book told women to embrace their ambitions and not count themselves because they feared that meeting rooms weren’t built for mothers specifically, or for women at all.

“I still find myself at times being spoken to and ignored while the men sitting next to me are not,” Ms Sandberg wrote. “But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I learned to sit at the table.

His message was clear: draw a chair. The text suggested that any reader could accomplish some version of what Ms Sandberg had – throwing her shoulders back, asking for a raise, weaning people who please.

Many found themselves inspired. Molly Flanagan, a workplace coach who was a member of a Lean In circle in New York, recalled that reading the book inspired her to take a contest at work.

“I was at a point in my career where I was trying to navigate the ranks of my organization,” she said. “Things like claiming my place at the table were really big developmental things for me.”

But it was also abundantly clear to many “Lean In” readers that what had enabled Ms. Sandberg to climb the corporate ladder went far beyond sheer willpower. She was a Harvard-educated white woman, months away from becoming one of the world’s youngest billionaires.

“It’s hard for black women to bend over when you’re not even in the room,” said Minda Harts, 40, consultant and author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat. at the Table”. .” She remembers feeling frustrated when her white colleagues recommended Ms. Sandberg’s book to her. “I was thinking, there’s no way I could walk in Sergey Brin’s door and say, ‘I don’t have a parking space’.”

Feminist thinker bell hooks put it bluntly in a 2013 review. “Sometimes Sandberg reminds readers of old stereotypes about used car salesmen,” Ms Hooks wrote. “She pushes her product and she pushes it well.”

And for many women, Ms Sandberg’s book, which focuses on how the individual should change rather than the workplace as a whole, has not only offered useless advice on tackling inequalities. This was a fundamental reflection of the problem.

“Without any structural change, you’re leaning on low-income women of color to support this fantasy of impoverishment,” said Koa Beck, 35, author of “White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind “.

Or, put another way, a corporate lawyer’s ability to hire multiple nannies so she could work late nights on her partner’s way wasn’t going to solve the child care problem for everybody.

Some, especially young women, immediately criticized Ms Sandberg’s book, which the author called “a kind of feminist manifesto”. Others have sharpened their criticisms over time – either when their own life experiences made it clear that stepping up a little harder in meetings wouldn’t catapult them to the top of a male-dominated corporate sphere, or when they realized who this strategy would serve most easily.

“Society has moved on, we’re paying much more attention to women’s structural disadvantages – everything from sexual harassment to childcare to the lack of national paid maternity leave,” said feminist columnist Katha Pollitt. , who recalled many friends and his own daughter, found “Lean In” full of sage advice when it was released. “People no longer see women’s working lives as being determined by their own common sense.”

Katherine Goldstein, 38, started a Lean In circle with friends in 2013. Three of her seven members were motivated by the book to ask for raises, and got them.

“It felt like an amazing plan for how to think about my life going forward,” said Ms Goldstein, author of The Double Shift newsletter.

But after Ms Goldstein gave birth, struggled to raise a child with health issues and then lost her high-profile media job, the book’s advice began to ring hollow. “It’s useful for me now as an intellectual foil to what I no longer believe in and don’t want to be,” she said.

For all the backlash that “Lean In” ultimately unleashed, there were millions of women who saw some of their own potential in Ms. Sandberg’s megawatt success.

“I always call it a before-and-after situation,” said Rachel Sklar, an entrepreneur who served on the pitch committee that promoted “Lean In” before its release. “It became shorthand for an issue that was previously known and unnamed.”

For Ms Sklar, some of the criticism leveled at Ms Sandberg since the publication of her book has seemed excessive. “Male business owners write books all the time, and they go unnoticed on how well their books stand the test of time,” Ms. Sklar said.

And Ms Sandberg has come under even greater scrutiny as public perception of her business has faded. When Facebook was criticized for its role in spreading false information during the 2016 election, some of the public anger was directed at Ms Sandberg, who was head of the political and security team. In 2018, she was implicated in some of the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal. On top of that, research indicates that Instagram, which Meta owns, has had toxic effects on the mental health of teenage girls. Some felt that Ms. Sandberg’s public message remained too focused on individual ambition and achievement, and not on the social value of the company she ran.

“Not everything should be taken into account,” said Rosa Brooks, 51, a professor at Georgetown University School of Law, adding that Ms Sandberg’s leadership tenure raises deeper questions about her philosophy in Workplace. “It’s not just ‘How can I be successful under workplace conditions?’ but “How can I change the workplace and make it a force for good?”

Last month, when a draft ruling revealed the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, Ms. Sandberg released a statement mourning the loss of women’s access to abortion.

“This is a scary day for women across our country,” Ms. Sandberg wrote on Facebook. “Every woman, wherever she lives, should be free to choose if and when she becomes a mother.”

For some women, the post was another sign that Ms Sandberg’s personal philosophy would have limited impact and that there was more urgency to focus on larger-scale policy change. There were no statements of support for abortion access from Ms Sandberg’s company. In fact, weeks later, a recording obtained by The Verge revealed that a Meta executive told employees not to discuss abortion on the company’s internal platform, called Workplace, due to the nature controversial subject. Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

For a decade, Ms. Sandberg’s approach to gender in the workplace influenced both her supporters and her critics.

Ms. Harts, the workplace consultant, was galvanized by Ms. Sandberg’s writings. She decided to create a playbook for women like her who couldn’t see themselves in “Lean In”. Seven years ago, Ms. Harts founded The Memo, a career development organization supporting women of color. Since then, she has received an avalanche of emails, including from black women working at Meta, thanking her for advice more relevant to their lives.

“The idea that you could work the hardest and get ahead isn’t always the same for women of color,” Ms. Harts said.

And now even Ms. Sandberg is taking a break. In a Facebook post on Wednesday announcing her resignation, she said her next period would include getting married this summer and focusing on her children, philanthropy and other pursuits that may not be as neatly charted as the previous chapters of his career.

“I’m not quite sure what the future holds,” she wrote. “I learned that no one ever is.”