Thursday March 21, 2013

LOS ANGELES -- Sheryl Sandberg is not sure what kind of book she has written. "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" is not a memoir, a self-help book, or a career-management how-to, she writes in the book’s introduction. It’s not a feminist manifesto, but it is "sort of a feminist manifesto." Whatever it is, it is for "any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously." And Sandberg wants us to do it by breaking the internalized attitudes that cause us to "hold ourselves back in ways both big and small." She wants us to "lean in" to our careers. We can "dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today," she tells us. "We can start this very moment."

In the weeks leading up to the book’s publication, critics have squabbled over Sandberg’s authority to administer that advice. The Facebook chief operating officer is an out-of touch elite who hopes to bolster her own reputation by holding women responsible for their failure to advance instead of institutional sexism. Or else she is a powerful woman with the business clout and a personal fortune ample enough to launch a mainstream feminist revolution. Or perhaps poking at Sandberg’s approachability is evidence of another sexist double standard.

But Sandberg’s prominent perch in the male-dominated tech world is central to the promise of "Lean In." Read this book, follow my lead, get ahead. Throughout the book, Sandberg carefully weighs the double binds, internal and external, that keep women from reaching their potential in the workplace. Then she dispatches personal anecdotes to explain how she navigated them to become, as a Forbes listicle once anointed her, the fifth most powerful woman in the world.

Unfortunately, Sandberg’s combination of sort-of-feminist analysis and not-really memoir doesn’t square up. Take her advice on how women should navigate one of the most vexing double binds in the workplace:

Study after study demonstrates that "success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women."

Sandberg instructs women to resist the urge to internalize those stats. We should not "question our abilities and downplay our achievements" in an effort to "protect ourselves from being disliked." But then again, "people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice." Being disliked isn’t a sustainable option. So at crucial moments like job interviews and salary negotiations, she tells women to carefully "combine niceness with insistence," be "relentlessly pleasant," and appear "nice, concerned about others, and ‘appropriately’ female." But then again, "even when a woman negotiates successfully for herself, she can pay a longer-term cost in goodwill and future advancement."

When faced with a murky body of evidence like that, Sandberg leans on a personal anecdote like this: At her first Facebook performance review, Mark Zuckerberg advised her that her "desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back. He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress. Mark was right." End of chapter.

The entire book plays out like this. Sandberg encourages women to fake confidence in the workplace by investing in "an hour of forced smiling" or by "assuming ‘a high-power pose.’" Then again, women would do best to communicate "authentically." Women shouldn’t be afraid to cry on a colleague’s shoulder at an emotional time, she says. Then again, "research suggests" that "it is not a good idea to cry at work." Women shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for flexible work hours to handle family commitments. Except that "employees who make use of flexible work policies are often penalized." Women "need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that,’ to thinking ‘I want to do that, and I’ll learn by doing it.’" But then again, men are promoted based on their potential while women are promoted based on their past accomplishments. Except that "a woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of getting hired."

The more Sandberg attempts to shoehorn her own career lessons into the "lean in" framework, the more confusing her advice becomes.

Amanda Hess writes for Slate.