Sheryl Sandberg. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Knopf, 2013. 240 pp. $24.95.
A common argument of the feminist movement is that anything a man can do a woman can do equally, if not better. But more importantly, many within the movement have made this claim precisely because they see very little distinction between the sexes. Women can accomplish what men can because they aren’t all that different from them. But not all feminists think that way. Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, understands that these differences lead women to respond differently to their careers—often times to their detriment. And while Sandberg champions women as capable of all that men can achieve, she sees a very important distinction between the two (145).
All of this is what lead her to write Lean In.
Drawing from years of experience in high-level positions everywhere from the government to Facebook, Sandberg says that it is precisely because men and women are so different that women need to work harder than ever to make themselves known and heard in the marketplace.
Her essential premise is “a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. I believe this would be a better world” (7). While we might not agree that this is the solution to a truly equal world, she does get some things right as she assesses the world around her.
Mentoring and the Christian Woman
Sandberg sees the value of community and input in order to succeed (64-76). We are not lone rangers. As Christians, we undestand this even more. In Titus 2 we are told that older women and men are to train the next generation in godliness. Paul mentors young Timothy as he embarks on his calling as a pastor. Jesus poured into his disciples, training them to do the work of the ministry. Moses was encouraged by his father-in-law. Eli instructed Samuel. Throughout Christian history, believers have learned by those who have gone before us. Sandberg recognizes that there is value to be found in the expertise and knowledge of more experienced colleagues.
Different, But Not Different
Throughout the book Sandberg asserts that women often are held back from positions of leadership and power because of cultural expectations and the practical outworking of those expectations. Women are expected to be the primary caregivers of their children and the domestic force in the home. In Sandberg’s opinion, only when these expectations are lessened can women truly advance in our society.
While she sees the importance of capitalizing on our differences as male and female, she stops short of applying such differences to every sphere of life. Sure, a mother might feel a twinge of anguish when her son prefers the nanny to her, but that is a normal price to be paid for her career—and it really has no bearing on either of their psyches (136). A woman might feel the pull of her home and her career, but that is simply owing to the nurture of a society that expects both things from her, not because of her very nature as female.
In Sandberg’s estimation, women must own their differences in the board room, but lessen them in the living room. This thinking carries over into every sphere of a woman’s life, she says. In her chapter, “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” she says that while women might be more bent towards nurturing because they carry their child for nine months and are his or her only source of nutrients (usually) in those early months, men can compensate for the difference through knowledge and effort (108). Men, she says can overcome biology with consciousness, thus making the playing field equal in the home so it’s then equal in the workforce.
Perhaps the saddest and yet most insightful part of the book to me was when Sandberg addressed “The Myth of Doing it All” (ch. 9). In this chapter she debunks the idea that women can have career, family, marriage, and community involvements all with a smile on their face. Every honest woman knows this is not possible. Sandberg recognizes that something has to give. For her, it means doing the best she can with what she has (139). She understands that she will miss some meals with her kids, special events at school, and even important projects at work, because no one person can do everything to perfection every time.
This is a helpful perspective for the Christian. In a society that puts an undue amount of pressure on women to do it all, Sandberg helps us see that we simply cannot make everything happen the way we want it to. I have heard it said that only God gets his to-do list done every day and that is a helpful perspective for any Christian to have when his or her feet hit the floor in the morning. We simply cannot do it all.
But even more, sometimes our quest to have it all might be mixed with a desire to have too much. Because we are finite beings we have limited capacities. We were not made to have a million irons in the fire and do them all well. And while Sandberg cites research that states children in dual income households are no worse off than those in single income households, there is something to be said for the importance of a parent being there for his or her children. Children need their mothers, and the thought it is not always possible for a mother to be primarily at home with her children, a world where mom is spending more time focusing on advancing her own career than on her children’s lives hardly seems like the best place to grow up.
Sandberg provides some insightful observations about women and work, but falls short of turning those observations into correct actions. Surprisingly, she boldly asserts that men and women are different, but not different enough. She shatters the idea that women can have it all, but says that is okay and provides no real solutions to the problem of “mommy guilt.” Like so many non-Christian books on leadership and women, she understands the problems that face us but lacks the clear, biblical insight to give us models for change. As Christians, we know that is only possible because of the shed blood of our Christ. He leaned in all the way to the Cross, so we do not have to fight for our right to lead, work, and make a name for ourselves in the frenetic world in which we live.
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