The advice was largely based on his own experience, but was often peppered with nuggets from psychological or sociological research. She presented it as focusing on the “internal hurdles” women face on the way to the top: the way women are socialized to defer to others, to get every detail exactly right, and to be sympathetic to all cost.
Initial reactions to the book were positive, but a backlash quickly emerged. Sandberg wrote in “Lean In” that she would mostly avoid structural barriers to gender equality, because she believed those very real barriers had been covered extensively elsewhere. She also acknowledged that a high-flying corporate career isn’t everyone’s definition of success. And she said she recognizes that most women struggle just to make ends meet, not to get the corner office. But Sandberg was nonetheless lambasted for not delving into these issues — essentially, for not writing a completely different book.
In feminist circles, it has become decidedly uncool to champion “Lean In”. Today, it’s sort of shorthand for a certain kind of feminism — rich, white, capitalist, cisgender, and heterosexual. Out of reach. Girlboss feminism that basically says, “If you can’t beat the patriarchy, join it.”
Some reviews were helpful. In particular, it catalyzed a broader conversation about overwork, capitalism, and male-centric professional standards. Some scholars said the book prompted them to conduct new studies examining Sandberg’s claims. In the years since the book’s commercial success, I’ve seen more academic journals publish meaningful research on workplace gender disparities. Anecdotally, I’ve heard researchers say that journals suddenly became more conducive to studies that a few years earlier would have been deemed too specialized.
Every time an idea takes off, there’s always a part that’s purely due to timing. Sandberg (along with a co-author and a researcher) has written a fascinating book. But there had been compelling books written on this subject before. Why did it catch fire? Did Sandberg just hit the zeitgeist jackpot, or did she really reshape the zeitgeist?
Probably a bit of both. But one thing was clear to me at the time as a longtime observer of women in power: By speaking from her own experiences, Sandberg changed the conversation.
Until “Lean In,” many high-level female leaders would balk when asked about gender in the workplace. “I’m not a woman at Google, I’m a geek at Google”, according to the memorable sentence of the future CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer. Some older women discussed workplace equality, but it wasn’t common to find someone in a C-level role willing to talk about demanding pregnancy parking after waddling into the parking lot at the office. company with swollen ankles, like Sandberg did. It was as if they feared that admitting their femininity would take them less seriously.
After Sandberg’s book became a bestseller, other female executives were more willing to talk about their experiences. And, just as crucially, publishers were hungry for more books on gender equality. Sandberg had shown that there was a market.
Terrible books have been published. And the phenomenon has focused too much on elite white women. But as someone who remembers a time when these stories struggled to catch on or when women themselves didn’t want to talk about their experiences of working as women, it was exciting to see this conversation take root.
In the years that followed, several large corporations significantly expanded parental leave, and the federal government began offering paid maternity leave to federal employees. Eight states have now passed laws guaranteeing some form of paid maternity leave. The #MeToo movement has blown open the doors of a culture of empowerment for sexual harassers. Feminism has become, somewhat oddly for this child of the 1980s backlash, momentarily fashionable; Beyoncé performed in front of a huge sign that read “FEMINIST.”
Perhaps nothing marks change as clearly as Hillary Clinton’s two presidential elections. During the 2008 election, she downplayed her gender, following the pre-“Lean In” script for a successful woman: “Nothing to see here, I’m just one of the guys.” In 2016, she embraced her role as a glass ceiling breaker. This time she won the nomination. We now have a vice-president.
I don’t attribute the successes of these other women to Sandberg, who alone did not cause major cultural change. But I give her credit for being willing to discuss her womanhood alongside her leadership responsibilities in a candid and deeply personal way. “Lean In” was one of the sparks that ignited larger fires.
As Sandberg prepares to step down, it feels like those fires are flickering. Sexual harassment still happens in businesses, but we’re told the MeToo movement has gone too far. It seems trivial to talk about pregnancy parking when women in many states may soon lose the ability to decide if they want to get pregnant. And Sandberg’s reputation has taken a hit along with Meta’s in the wake of Cambridge Analytica scandals to the Rohingya massacre to studies that show Instagram harms the mental health of young girls. I will be very interested to see where she directs her energies and philanthropy next. It is clear that women and girls are always issues close to his heart. They could use his voice unfettered and unfiltered now.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Sandberg leaves Facebook at a perilous time: Parmy Olson
Are workers more productive at home? : Justin Fox
Cathy O’Neil has good reasons why techies are embracing the desktop
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was Ideas and Commentary Editor at Barron’s and Managing Editor of Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion