Sheryl Sandberg 'Lean In': Unrealistic Expectations For the Average Working Woman?


Lean In is the title of Sheryl Sandberg's book and revolutionary social movement of leading women towards workplace leadership. Slated for a March book release, Sandberg has already embarked on a social media campaign worthy of her own experience as Facebook and Google trailbrazer and female executive. The book and its subject matter are already raising some eyebrows as superstar Sandberg seeks to offer women advice through offering up her own extraordinary career as a template.

The mission of lean in is “to create a global community dedicated to encouraging women to lean in to their ambitions.” The detailed manual that describes how to conduct meetings and small think tanks to achieve this goal goes as far to diagram and index these brain storming sessions amongst small groups of female corporate participants. However, what the manual fails to address is how this exhaustive how to succeed guide is tailored to specific women who struggle to achieve a balance in their daily lives and are not necessarily on the same level as Sandberg and her fellow savvy Silicon Valley savants.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, argues in the controversial Atlantic article, “Why Women Can’t Have it All,” it is possible for women to have it all- just not at once. Slaughter argues that “women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips.).” In a perfect world, this would allow for women to be present during crucial parenting years and then resume their careers when time allows. Unfortunately for most women, the pause button is nowhere in sight. Slaughter criticized Sandberg in Fortune for holding women to “unattainable standards for personal and professional success.

A cult of fear is preventing women from taking the steps to scale back at the risk of appearing to be unproductive. Even Sandberg was not always so forthcoming with her work-life balance. She admits to having to sneak out of the office to get home for family dinners only to find herself playing catch up: working from home late into the night. While both men and women have to do this, women feel the need to apologize, perhaps over their own guilt, and then backpedal. Will Marissa Mayer be forced to surreptitiously sneak away as well, fearing that her recently appointed post will be snatched up in her absence?

According to Slaughter’s research, investment in intervals that oscillate between periods of focus on work and family provide stair step paths to professional achievement. Slaughter says that career plateaus are an effective means for women to achieve their goals without worrying about sacrificing their objectives. However, she argues, “whether women will really have the confidence to stair-step their careers will depend on perceptions.”

Women have to perpetuate a culture that accepts taking breaks as the norm, rather than the exception that leads to opting out, as Sandberg warned against. This means setting aside time for kids and having the confidence to know that your life’s ambitions are still there, or even allowing for the birth of your first child to happen in the middle of the week.

The strife amongst high-achieving Silicon Valley super moms may not resonate amongst single mothers working double shifts at Walmart. However, it’s still emblematic of both an economic and gender inequality that is leaving the top ranks of female executives gasping for air. Having a seat at the board room was a major breakthrough for trailblazer Sheryl Sandberg. However, as outlined in a recent New York Times article, Sandberg runs the risk of ostracizing her fellow females.

Ms. Sandberg “does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other women for not trying hard enough,” wrote Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a consultant who works with companies to improve their gender balance, after watching a video of Ms. Sandberg speaking on the topic at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. Indeed, the how to “Lean In” guide can be painstakingly thorough while obtuse in its scope.  

Sandberg may be the leader of a new social movement, but whether she’s speaking to a packed house at Davos, or a tiny web camera, her audience may be fleeting.