A woman walks up to the counter to order a latte and sees a copy of Lean In, the book its author describes at “a sort-of feminist manifesto,” displayed at the register. She wrinkles her nose a little, and says to the man she’s with, “That book says women should be more aggressive.” It’s obvious that she disapproves, and then she rolls her eyes, just to underline her point.
Since I’ve watched this scene play out at my bookstore several times this week, let me set the record straight: Lean In is about women in the workplace, but it doesn’t encourage women to be more aggressive. It isn’t man-hating. It isn’t negative. And dismissing another woman without really listening to what she has to say is exactly what author Sheryl Sandberg is fighting against.
To speak to the criticisms for a moment, it’s true that Sandberg herself best represents educated, middle-class-or-higher white women, and that her ideas for change aren’t exactly groundbreaking. But her premise of exploring the questions of how women interact in the workplace, and why more of us aren’t leaders in our fields, is a conversation we all (women and men) need to be having. And, just for kicks, let’s set up some ground rules for that conversation: No wrinkled noses. No rolled eyes. And no uninformed commentary that tears someone down before even listening to what she has to say.
Sandberg writes about what happens when a woman transitions from the somewhat rarified world of education, where women are often valued, into the business world, where the culture is often still shockingly stacked against women in leadership. If you doubt that assertion, she has plenty of statistics to back her up. (And I have plenty of life experience to agree with those statistics.) To right this wrong, she says we should support women who take leadership roles, even if that’s not the path we choose for ourselves. She says that, by helping more women move into top roles in business, we can strengthen more than just feminism — we also strengthen our communities, our businesses, and, yes, our families. That’s the positive message of Lean In: Do what good you can, and support others who do what good you can’t (or don’t choose to) do yourself.
What she doesn’t do is suggest that women should act more like men, or be more aggressive at work. In fact, she spends a lot of the book pointing out how women are different than our male coworkers. One way Sandberg says women are different is that we tend to feel like imposters, like we don’t deserve what we’ve earned. We take criticism to heart. We are defeated by our own inferiority complexes and by the idea that our roles as women and as mothers are somehow incompatible with our roles in the office. And, although men are encouraged to own their accomplishments and talents, women tend to give away the credit, saying we were just lucky, or that other people helped us out.
One of the reasons I loved reading this book was discovering that I’m not alone in feeling inadequate in my job even though the facts show that I’m actually great at it. I’m not the only woman who’s been called a bitch for acting professional instead of nurturing. I’m not the only business owner who has been accused of making “power plays” because I prioritized the business over an individual’s sense of entitlement. I’m not the only person to crumble because doing what’s right for my business left me vulnerable to deeply personal attacks
The fact is, Sandberg’s story isn’t a blueprint that everyone can follow, but she’s open about that fact. It’s still a wonderful thing, as a woman in business, to be able to hear from someone who’s walked the path before you, made some of the same mistakes, and found a way to thrive. It’s like having a mentor on your bookshelf. Since such a small percentage of business owners and leaders are female, I think putting that kind of advice and access into a book is a powerful thing.
Unfortunately, the best evidence that Sandberg’s book is necessary has been the backlash against it. She writes that women are slammed for taking credit for their accomplishments while men are praised for it. And look what’s happened: Reviewers and bookstore-counter commentators are proving her point. Men, apparently, are allowed to write first-person memoirs touting their professional achievements without being attacked. But when a woman does it, people line up to rip her accomplishments away from her and hand them to the men who worked beside her on the way up.
I’d like it if we could take Sandberg’s advice and work together instead of tearing each other down. But, at the very least, could we stop calling other women bitches for doing their jobs? Could we stop saying it’s an act of aggression for a woman to ask for fair pay? Could we admit that it’s time for a national conversation based on discourse instead of biased attacks? And can we stop rolling our eyes when someone else wants to talk about it?