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How to Succeed in Business

Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Reginald Owen in Woman of the Year, 1942

Of course there is one element that distinguishes Lean In from the motivational books that have preceded it. Aside from the fact that Sandberg is female, aside from the fact that her book is written and marketed for women, and aside from the fact that it has already sold well, it also makes some much larger claims about gender and society. This is not unusual: very rich people quite frequently conclude that their business experiences (and their money) qualify them to pronounce with great confidence on politics, economics, morality, and much else.

But Sandberg has chosen to make a more specific argument. Lean In, she explains, is designed to address a serious, important social problem: the lack of powerful women at the very top of corporate America. This, she believes, is no minor crisis:

We can’t avoid this conversation. This issue transcends all of us. The time is long overdue to encourage more women to dream the possible dream and encourage more men to support women in the workforce and in the home.
We can reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution. The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person. We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.

A cynic might look at this language as yet another marketing technique: perhaps women are more likely to buy a motivational business book if it’s disguised as a quasi-feminist tract.

But that seems unfair. Sandberg has repeated this argument in other places, after all, and she does really seem to care about the dearth of top women bosses. I’m therefore inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, and to accept that she really means it. But in that case, the question needs to be thrown back at her. For yes, it’s absolutely true, only twenty-one Fortune 500 CEOs are females. But is this really a major social problem? Is this an issue that “transcends all of us”? Does the solution require “reigniting the revolution,” and does it mean men and women alike must rethink their lives and priorities? To put it differently, would the world be very different for women—or for men—if two hundred and fifty Fortune 500 CEOs were female?

To the last question, the answer—purely on the evidence of Sandberg’s book—is no. I am not the first person to notice that Lean In does not propose any concrete changes to corporate or public policy in order to accommodate women in top jobs, with a single exception. When she was at Google, Sandberg had trouble finding a parking place at the company headquarters one day. Heavily pregnant, nauseous, she barely made it to her meeting. The next day “I marched in—or more like waddled in—to see Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their office.” Finding Sergey “in a yoga position in the corner,” she announced that the company needed pregnancy parking, “preferably sooner rather than later.” He agreed immediately.

Other than that, this book provides no evidence that Sandberg’s presence at the top of the company has directly altered the corporate culture of either Google or Facebook. She does speak vaguely of more tolerance for parental duties, family-friendly working hours, and sharing tasks with husbands (as noted, she does not mention nannies, after-school programs, or day care). But she gives no examples of where or how this has been successfully transformed into a company policy. At the same time, all of her personal anecdotes show her working harder, longer hours than anyone else and accepting bigger, tougher challenges. Generally, she advocates adjusting one’s life to the punishing routine of corporate success rather than vice versa. That’s what she did, and that’s what successful men do too.

One presumes that Sandberg is more inclined than a man in her position to hire a woman or to recommend one, that the very existence of top women encourages others.5 But if she ever did anything specifically for her female colleagues, by example or by design, she doesn’t say so. Nor is she unique. Recently Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo—another female business superstar—banned her employees from working from home. That much-discussed decision seemed, to many, to reflect a lack of female solidarity, since working from home is particularly good for mothers. More recently, Mayer seemed to atone for that decision by declaring that Yahoo would begin offering eight weeks maternity or paternity leave to both men and women at the company. Yet this too sends a confusing message. Mayer herself famously took only two weeks maternity leave, and worked all the way through them. Shouldn’t women who want to run companies follow her example, not her public pronouncements?

But even if women at the top don’t necessarily make things easier for other women in the corporate world, could their absence still be a huge obstacle—the most important obstacle, the central obstacle—facing women more generally? Alas that too is hard to prove, particularly if one takes into account the arguments of another recent book, one that is very different in both substance and style. Unlike Lean In, Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men is very well documented, meticulously researched, and based on the author’s extensive reporting, not her personal life story. It also draws almost exactly the opposite conclusion. In The End of Men, Rosin argues that the real crisis facing America today is not the dearth of women bosses, but the dearth of men at all levels except at the very top.

Provocatively, Rosin argues that the evolution of the service economy and the decline of blue-collar jobs have created a world that increasingly favors classically “female” talents, starting with a greater ability to sit still and listen in school, and continuing with better “people skills” of the kind needed to get ahead in the modern world. Rosin’s work is backed up not by social science studies on housework and sex but by hard facts. In the Great Recession, three quarters of the 7.5 million jobs lost belonged to men. For every two men who will receive a BA this year, three women will do the same. Of the fifteen job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the US, all but two are occupied primarily by women. Not only that, Rosin finds similar patterns elsewhere in the world: “We are starting to see how quickly an order we once considered ‘natural’ can be overturned.”

Rosin is inclined to see the positive side of this story—she thinks it’s a good thing that women now occupy more positions of power—but she faithfully documents the downside as well. Middle-class, lower-middle-class, and poor men are dropping out of the workforce on a previously unimaginable scale. And this phenomenon, Rosin capably demonstrates, is extremely bad for women. Male underachievement, male unemployment, and male failure are undermining marriage, harming children, and destroying families.

The impact on the poor is already visible: the number of children who live in families headed by single mothers is at an all-time high, despite the evidence that children in such families have worse educational, financial, and psychological outcomes. Though it may be unavoidable, single motherhood generally isn’t good for the mothers either: raising children alone can be stressful and exhausting, maybe even more stressful and exhausting than running a large company. Sandberg has said many times that successful women must be sure to marry the right sort of man: helpful, respectful of her career, willing to split household tasks 50–50. But it will be difficult, if not impossible, for women to “dream the possible dream” if there are not merely few helpful men to marry, but few marriageable men at all.6

In addition to the ever more limited prospects for men in America and their detrimental effect on women, there is another gender crisis upon which Sandberg might have focused her considerable energy and talent. Unfortunately, this particular gender crisis doesn’t affect the American book-buying public at all. She alludes to it in the introduction to Lean In:

There are still countries that deny women basic civil rights. Worldwide, about 4.4 million women and girls are trapped in the sex trade. In places like Afghanistan and Sudan, girls receive little or no education, wives are treated as the property of their husbands, and women who are raped are routinely cast out of their homes for disgracing their families. Some rape victims are even sent to jail for committing a “moral crime.” We are centuries ahead of the unacceptable treatment of women in these countries.

But instead of calling on the Silicon Valley sisterhood to gather together its considerable resources on behalf of women around the world who not only suffer from real discrimination but whose lives are at risk because of it, Sandberg urges American women, in effect, not to be distracted by the plight of the women of Afghanistan and Sudan: “Knowing that things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better.” With that single sentence, she abandons the “4.4 million women” in the sex trade (rather a low-sounding number), the even more millions of girls with no education, and the rape victims who are sent to jail for committing a moral crime. She does not return to them in the rest of the book.

Once again: would two hundred and fifty female Fortune 500 CEOs make a big difference to American women? Maybe a little bit, with things like pregnancy parking. Would they work doggedly to change American legislation in order to provide better access to child care, early education, and other programs that would make working life easier for women and men alike? Not necessarily. Would they help American men find employment in the changing economy, so they can help support their wives and families? Not very likely. Would they help the women around the world who suffer real hardship solely because they are women? On the evidence of this book, not at all.

This isn’t an objection to the two hundred and fifty female Fortune 500 CEOs who will probably emerge, someday, if current trends are anything to go by. More power to them! I am merely asking whether their absence, at the moment, is an issue that “transcends all of us.”

This isn’t really an objection to Sandberg’s book, either, just an argument for being clear about what it is. I repeat: this is a motivational, inspirational, self-help business book, part of a long tradition of such books in American publishing. Because it’s the first really successful such book to be written by a woman, it’s a landmark of sorts. So do read Lean In if you’re looking for some positive uplift, some stirring stories, and some advice about your job or your marriage. But don’t read it if you want to learn how to change the world.

  1. 5

    The international evidence on this subject isn’t very satisfying: in Norway, a law requiring 40 percent of all company board members to be women has not created more top female bosses. Instead it has vastly enriched a handful of women, most notably seventy Norwegian businesswomen (the “golden skirts”) who between them sit on three hundred corporate boards. See Nicola Clark, “Getting Women into Boardrooms, by Law,” The New York Times, January 27, 2010. 

  2. 6

    Rosin is not alone in anticipating a completely new kind of gender crisis. Back in 2000, Cristina Hoff Sommers argued in The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men that the male–female education gap was endangering the future of men, a claim that provoked some scoffing at the time. Since then, her arguments have become conventional wisdom. The War Against Boys will be republished in August this year with a new foreword, pointing out that male academic failure has only accelerated since the first edition. 

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