The first red flag for me reading Sheryl Sandberg‘s, “Lean In,” came early in the book. It was page 6 to be exact. She writes,
“I graduated from college in 1991…The proverbial glass ceiling had been cracked in almost every industry, and I believed that it was just a matter of time until my generaton took our fair share of the leadership roles.”
I wrote in the margin, “1991?”
On page 14, she further expands on her worldview at the time with this statement,
“When I arrived at college in the fall of 1987, my classmates of both genders seemed equally focused on academics. I don’t remember thinking about my future career differently from the male students. I also don’t remember conversations about someday balancing work and children. My friends and I assumed that we would have both.”
And that’s when I knew this book was not written for me, or for many other women like me. This is a book Sheryl wrote for her friends.
I remember 1991. I was well into my career by then. A business book that hit the bookshelves that year made an irrevocable impression on me as a woman, a mother, and particularly, a business professional. The book, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” was written by a Wall Street Journal reporter named Susan Faludi. The original copy of that book still sits squarely at the center of my bookcase in my office. Faludi spelled out that year, in pain-staking detail (the reference notes alone take up 81 pages in 8-pt type), how women were losing on every front. That this “backlash” had cropped up, a counter-reaction if you will, to feminism to “put women back in their place.”
Here is Faludi herself talking about the book in 1992.
Sandberg hardly, I mean hardly, even mentions this book. There’s a tacit self-shaming (and I wondered if her editor at Knopf made her add this) on page 142 where she admits,
“I would have denied being in any way, shape or form, a feminist. None of my college friends thought of themselves as feminists either. It saddens me to admit that we did not see the backlash against women around us.”
She gives a single footnote to Faludi with this line. Really? A footnote? Now, like Sandberg, I will state for the record, as she does, “I am not a scholar, a journalist, or a sociologist.” I’m only writing this review because I told a few people I would not pass judgment about the book until after I’d read it.
I’m not really even sure Sheryl Sandberg read Backlash. Why would she? She had no early indicators that life was going to be tough. She was a good student, daughter of an Ivy League graduate mother and physician father. In high school, between junior and senior year she worked as a page for a U.S. Senator. Getting accepted to Harvard was just the next logical step in a trajectory laid out for her and so many like her. So, yes. The accusations are legit. This is a book written by an elitist woman who’s enjoyed tremendous class and power privileges.
The mean girl in me thought it might be fun to make some money off the Sandberg book by marketing a drinking game you could play at middle class BBQs and backyard summer parties. Everyone could take shots and advance around the board when the dice rolled you another privilege Sandberg racked up on her career journey. You’d get bonus points and rounds for everyone! every time you opened the book randomly and and spotted a 1 percent keyword: Harvard, Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Stanford, Treasury Department, Larry Summers, McKinsey, etc.
But, I’m really not a mean girl. I don’t hate Sheryl Sandberg for her success, for her book, for her “movement,” …for anything. In her world, she actually did take a brave step and one that was difficult for her considering the thwacking she’s received already. It’s impossible to read this book as a thinking woman without filtering it through your own experience. I know there will be a lot of women who don’t have the problems ordinary women do, who will use this book as ammunition to accelerate their careers and pursue more power. And, if she’s right, these women once in power (although not sure I have seen any evidence whatsoever that this is true) can begin to address some of the drudgery and hardship being an ordinary working woman, wife, and mother is. Sandberg addresses this the best she can, from her own perspective. I’m rooting for her and her friends to lean in.
Me? I’m waiting for the day I’m no longer a case study. The day I’m no longer a data point on some Harvard student’s regression analysis that compares income with domestic violence. I’m waiting for the day my daughters tell my story, and their daughters tell theirs. There is a day coming where we won’t be leaning in, we will be falling over ourselves with equal pay, rights, reproductive choices, gender preferences, executive access, and celebrating our own battle-worn victories.
Sheryl is doing her part, and me and my female friends (professionals, SAHMs, gay, straight, single with kids, single/married without kids, and so on), we’re doing ours. What we lack in marketing budget, we make up in large numbers. And we’re not roaring anymore; we’re mostly yawning. But, we’re making that better world happen. Every damned day.