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Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Fall 2013 | By Sheryl Sandberg. Review by Robyn Malo, Assistant Professor of English. Photo by Steven Yang..

In the first chapter of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg asks, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The question, which usually sounds like a cloying aphorism, seemed somehow new, and I found myself reconsidering my life choices and future goals. What would I do? Is it the same as what I am doing now?

Sandberg’s insistence on self-examination and inquisitiveness is one of the primary benefits of Lean In, in which Sandberg contends that if women are to seek excellence and equality in the workforce, more of us must occupy positions of authority and power. She covers the difficulties of seeking out this power, a word often regarded (both implicitly and explicitly) as inimical to many of the qualities that we often identify with femininity.

In fact, in her chapter on “Success and Likeability,” Sandberg illustrates how even positive stereotypes—that women are consensus building and collegial, for example—can hold women back: the expectation that women are friendly and supportive, Sandberg explains, often works against us when we ask for a raise. The unspoken objection seems to be that women, stereotypically nurturing and concerned with the well-being of everyone, should not ask for something for themselves. Paradoxically, then, Sandberg’s argument suggests that while women need to take more risks and challenge ourselves more, a woman who figures out how to ask for a raise while seeming soft-spoken and more interested in others than herself might have better chances of success than the woman who projects confidence in her abilities to lead.

Sandberg hence argues that in order to overcome gendered expectations—even ostensibly positive ones—women must sometimes capitulate to them. In asking for a raise, for example, Sandberg advises against using the first-person pronoun, a move perfectly effective for a man, but one that conveys the message that a woman is selfish.

Underlying the book’s argument, then, is the acknowledgement that it is sometimes effective to pander to gendered stereotypes in order to advance the overall cause of feminism. This idea might not sit well with some readers, but I found it compelling. An assertive woman myself, Sandberg’s point made me wonder whether, had I sometimes behaved in more traditionally feminine ways, I might have succeeded where I ended up failing. I don’t like this possibility or think that it is just, and neither does Sandberg—but as Sandberg opines, using gender conformity in order to get that raise or promotion might ultimately enable us to overturn the paradigm that required conformity in the first place.


From the editor

Forty students from CLA and other colleges at Purdue recently participated in a livestream event with author and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg launched the Lean In on Campus initiative, speaking to over 150 college campuses globally. CLA's director of career development, Lisa Lambert Snodgrass, helped organize the event, and will help CLA students interested in forming Lean In circles on campus.

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