what sheryl sandbergs lean in has meant to women

What Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ Has Meant to Women

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When Amy Bailey, a communications strategist, read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, the year was 2013. The #MeToo movement hadn’t yet ballooned, spotlighting the abuses women can face in the workplace. The term #girlboss wasn’t trending. And the question of how Facebook might affect democracy was not front and center.

“It gave me this boost of courage,” said Ms. Bailey, 46, who lives in Green Bay, Wis., referring to Ms. Sandberg’s book. “It struck this feminist chord in me — if you just push harder, if you just ask for more, someone will take notice.”

Nearly a decade later, Ms. Bailey said she had been denied raises, pumped milk in the smoking lounge of her office and cut back on her professional ambitions, recognizing the challenge of balancing her work with motherhood. She has also soured on the Lean In philosophy that taught her that a little grit was all she needed for career success.

“It’s just not true,” she said. “No one has ever tapped me on the shoulder because I did more and was more prepared.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Sandberg announced that she was leaving her position as chief operating officer of Facebook’s parent company, Meta — the perch that made her one of the highest-profile women in American business. She had been in the job for five years when she published “Lean In,” and her singular role and success in Silicon Valley helped amplify the book’s message.

For many women “Lean In” has been a bible, a road map to corporate life. Many others have come to understand its limits, or to view it as a symbol of what is wrong with applying individual-focused solutions to the systemic issues holding back women in the workplace, especially women of color and low-income women. And Ms. Sandberg’s departure, for all those readers, is a moment to reflect on how “Lean In” shaped their careers.

When “Lean In” came out in 2013, landing on the best-seller list and propelling Ms. Sandberg onto the covers of Time and Fortune, just 4 percent of the chief executives at Fortune 500 companies were women. The book sold over four million copies in five years. The Lean In foundation supported the creation of thousands of Lean In circles where women, especially those at the start of their careers, turned to Ms. Sandberg’s advice as a guide.

The book told women to embrace their ambitions, and not to count themselves out because they feared that boardrooms weren’t built for mothers in particular, or for women at all.

“I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not,” Ms. Sandberg wrote. “But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I have learned to sit at the table.”

Her message was clear: Draw up a chair. The text suggested that any reader could accomplish a version of what Ms. Sandberg had — by throwing her shoulders back, asking for a raise, weaning off people-pleasing.

Many found themselves inspired. Molly Flanagan, a workplace coach who was a member of a Lean In circle in New York, recalled that reading the book prompted her to take a competitive exam at work.

“I was at a point in my career where I was trying to navigate ascending the ranks of my organization,” she said. “Things like claiming my seat at the table were really important developmental pieces for me.”

But it was also eminently clear to many readers of “Lean In” that what had allowed Ms. Sandberg to ascend the corporate world’s ladder went far beyond sheer will. She was a white, Harvard-educated woman, months away from becoming one of the world’s youngest-ever billionaires.

“It’s hard for Black women to lean in when you’re not even in the room,” said Minda Harts, 40, a consultant and the author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.” She recalled feeling frustrated when her white colleagues recommended Ms. Sandberg’s book to her. “I was thinking, there’s no way I could bust into Sergey Brin’s door and tell him, ‘I don’t have a parking spot.’”

The feminist thinker bell hooks put it bluntly in a 2013 review. “At times Sandberg reminds readers of the old stereotypes about used car salesmen,” Ms. hooks wrote. “She pushes her product and she pushes it well.”

And to many women, Ms. Sandberg’s book, with its emphasis on how the individual should change instead of the workplace at large, didn’t just offer unhelpful advice on addressing inequality. It was a fundamental reflection of the problem.

“Without any structural changes, you are leaning on low-income women of color to support this lean-in fantasy,” said Koa Beck, 35, author of “White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind.”

Or, put another way, one corporate lawyer’s ability to hire several nannies so she can work late into the night on her way to partner wasn’t going to address the child care crunch for everyone else.

Some, especially younger women, were immediate critics of Ms. Sandberg’s book, what the author labeled “sort of a feminist manifesto.” Others sharpened their critiques over time — either as their own life experiences made clear that piping up a little louder in meetings wouldn’t catapult them to the top of a male-dominated corporate sphere, or as they realized whom that strategy would most easily serve.

“Society has moved on, we pay a lot more attention now to the structural disadvantages women have — everything from sexual harassment to child care to no national paid maternity leave,” said Katha Pollitt, a feminist columnist, who recalled that many friends, and her own daughter, had found “Lean In” to be full of wise advice when it came out. “People have just moved on from seeing women’s work lives as being determined by their own gumption.”

Katherine Goldstein, 38, started a Lean In circle with friends in 2013. Three of its seven members were motivated by the book to ask for raises, and got them.

“It felt like an amazing blueprint for how to think about my life going forward,” said Ms. Goldstein, author of the newsletter The Double Shift.

But after Ms. Goldstein gave birth, struggled to parent a child with health problems and subsequently lost her high-profile media job, the book’s advice started to ring hollow. “It’s helpful for me now as an intellectual foil of what I don’t believe anymore and don’t want to be,” she said.

For all the backlash that “Lean In” eventually sparked, there were millions of women who saw some of their own potential in Ms. Sandberg’s megawatt success.

“I always refer to it as a before-after situation,” said Rachel Sklar, an entrepreneur who served on the launch committee that promoted “Lean In” before its release. “It became a shorthand for a problem that had previously been known about and not named.”

To Ms. Sklar, some of the criticism aimed at Ms. Sandberg since her book’s publication has felt excessive. “Male business leaders write books all the time, and they just fly under the radar on how their books stand the test of time,” Ms. Sklar said.

And Ms. Sandberg faced even greater scrutiny as public perception of her company dimmed. When Facebook came under fire for its role in the spread of misinformation during the 2016 election, some of the public’s ire was directed toward Ms. Sandberg, who was responsible for the policy and security team. In 2018, she was faulted for some of the fallout from the data breach scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. On top of that has come research indicating that Instagram, which Meta owns, has had toxic effects on the mental health of teenage girls. Some felt that Ms. Sandberg’s public message remained too focused on individual ambition and achievement, and not on the social value of the company she was leading.

“Not everything should be leaned into,” said Rosa Brooks, 51, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school, adding that Ms. Sandberg’s leadership tenure raised deeper questions about her workplace philosophy. “It’s not just ‘How do I succeed on the terms of the workplace?’ but ‘How do I change the workplace, and make it a force for good?’”

Last month, when a draft ruling revealed the Supreme Court’s intent to overturn Roe v. Wade, Ms. Sandberg put out a statement mourning the loss of women’s abortion access.

“This is a scary day for women all across our country,” Ms. Sandberg wrote on Facebook. “Every woman, no matter where she lives, must be free to choose whether and when she becomes a mother.”

To some women, the post was another sign that Ms. Sandberg’s personal philosophy would have limited impact, and that a focus on broader scale policy change was more urgently needed. There was no statement of support for abortion access from Ms. Sandberg’s company. In fact, weeks later, a recording obtained by The Verge revealed that a Meta executive had told employees not to talk about abortion on the company’s internal platform, called Workplace, because of the topic’s divisive nature. Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

For a decade, Ms. Sandberg’s approach to gender in the workplace influenced both her proponents and critics.

Ms. Harts, the workplace consultant, was galvanized by Ms. Sandberg’s writing. She decided to create a playbook for women like herself who didn’t see themselves in “Lean In.” Seven years ago Ms. Harts founded The Memo, a career development organization supporting women of color. Since then she has received an outpouring of emails, including from Black women working at Meta, thanking her for advice that felt more relevant to their lives.

“The idea that you could work the hardest and get ahead is not always the same for women of color,” Ms. Harts said.

And now, even Ms. Sandberg is hitting pause. In a Facebook post on Wednesday announcing her resignation, she said her next period would include getting married this summer and focusing on her children, philanthropy and other pursuits that perhaps aren’t as carefully charted as the previous chapters of her career.

“I am not entirely sure what the future will bring,” she wrote. “I have learned no one ever is.”