The Gospel Coalition


Lean In

Sheryl Sandberg | Review by: Kathleen Nielson

Sheryl Sandberg. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Knopf, 2013. 240 pp. $13.71.

Sheryl Sandberg is smart. When asked to review her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (#1 on The New York Times Bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction), I had no idea how much I’d enjoy her shrewd advice about successful work.

Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, offers many principles that are useful for everyone, not just for women. For example, her metaphor of a jungle gym as opposed to the ladder provides a hugely helpful picture of the flexible thinking necessary in today’s working world. Gone are the days when students prepare for one career and then follow it straight up the leadership ladder; today’s quickly changing work environment asks us to be always ready to learn new skills and risk trying new directions. Sandberg took this kind of risk with Google and then with Facebook—and she describes with zest her climb to the top of the social networking jungle gym. It’s fun to read.

The focus of Lean In, however, is women. Sandberg is addressing a particular issue: with all the strides feminism has made, women still aren’t equally represented in leadership positions of government and industry. Only 17 of the 195 independent countries are led by women. Only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Such inequality is the issue Sandberg addresses by writing to women. Her “Sit at the Table” principle, for example, powerfully encourages women not to doubt or underestimate their actual abilities, as statistics demonstrate they regularly do. It’s true many women resonate with the “imposter syndrome,” feeling undeserving—even fraudulent, somehow—when praised for their success (28-29). Women, Sandberg contends, must stop holding themselves back by internalizing and perpetuating society’s negative messages.

Such principles can be enlightening, especially when extracted from the book’s overall thesis that we must build an equal world, one where “half our institutions are run by women and half our homes are run by men” (7, cf. 172). Sandberg isn’t just writing about principles of work and leadership; she’s writing about using these principles to achieve full equality of gender roles in leadership positions.

Maternal Instinct

I find at least two important levels of objection to Sandberg’s thesis. The first comes, interestingly enough, from female voices in the broader culture. Elsa Walsh and Suzanne Venker offer just two of many objections to Sandberg’s call for women to follow her lead in pushing toward positions of influence. Such voices point out that Sheryl Sandberg’s and her husband’s incomes don’t represent the general population; they can blithely hire all sorts of help, making her model easy to offer but difficult (for most) to accept. This model, of course, involves Mom and Dad spending every day at the office, often traveling, and always “connected,” while two children are happily raised with well-paid helping hands on all sides. 

Further, such voices observe that many mothers simply don’t want to work full-time outside the home while raising their children. Though advancement and leadership in the workplace are great, they’re not prime goals for all women or even all working women. Venker cites recent data from the Pew Research Center showing a dramatic decline since 1997 in the number of mothers who view working full-time outside the home as a positive option. More and more mothers are admitting their desire to spend significant time with their children and remain deeply involved in their daily lives. That’s what Anne-Marie Slaughter was talking about in last summer’s much-discussed Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” This has been a huge deal for feminists—this admission, finally, of some sort of maternal instinct drawing them to be with their kids. Indeed, the instinct itself is a huge deal for many mothers who work full time (for a wide variety of reasons) and labor to shape that time in ways that enable them to connect as closely as possible with the lives of their children.

Though Sandberg takes passing note of such an instinct, she seems to view it as one more factor to be managed in the process of addressing the most urgent goal of building an equal world (137). Through her words runs a thread of guilt even she acknowledges—not only guilt that women haven’t solidified the progress made by feminists in the past, but also guilt that, in the process of trying, women may be shortchanging family life and growth (167). Indeed, at the heart of the objections coming from women in the general culture is a concern for human relationships as an even more pressing value than corporate success.

Value of Success

We can’t go much farther in our particular context without acknowledging the second level of objection to Sandberg’s thesis, which arises not just from women in general but from Christian women in particular. In one sense, we as believers wouldn’t want to argue with Sandberg but instead acknowledge a different set of values and hence a markedly different prime goal. 

If I had to identify one value on which Sandberg bases her entire thesis, it would be the value of success. She’s found it, and she wants more women to find it. When she tries a formal definition of success, however, the attempt falls rather flat: “Success is making the best choices we can . . . and accepting them” (139). Her working definition of success, though, comes through loud and clear in her writing: it has to do with having a lot of power and money. After ruing the lack of women in leadership positions, Sandberg pauses to make a telling statement: “There is some hope that a shift is starting to occur in the next generation. A 2012 Pew study found for the first time that among young people ages eighteen to thirty-four, more young women (66 percent) than young men (59 percent) rated ‘success in a high-paying career or profession’ as important to their lives” (16). 

For Sandberg, success is tied up with money and influence. She asserts “earning money increases [women’s] decision-making ability in the home, protects them in case of divorce, and can be important security in later years” (118). If this life is all there is, such logic might suffice. For good reason, then, Walsh’s final question about Sandberg is whether she realizes she’s someday going to die. What stands out in Sandberg’s values, in other words, is a dramatic lack of transcendence. If she thinks there’s anything beyond the good of this material life, she’s not talking about it.

Rich and Powerful

Such values determine Sandberg’s overarching goal, which, at first, might appear rather grand and unselfish: she wants equality for the human race. The irony, however, is that she herself has determined what’s good for all human beings and constructed it in her own image—that is, in the image of a rich and powerful leader. Oh what a privilege it would be to discuss with Sandberg the good news of a God who made all of us—women and men alike—equally in his image, who desires good for us, and who sent his Son to make that good possible even though we in ourselves fall helplessly short. That good doesn’t have anything to do with this world’s money and power, either; it has to do with the goodness of God himself, who came in weakness to die so that by faith in him we might forever live and reign with him in glory.

In the context of such biblical values and goals, we can indeed talk about “leaning in” to utmost excellence in every dimension of our lives—for God’s glory, according to God’s Word, by God’s Spirit, and with results left to him. No doubt all of us too often settle for less excellence and fruit than we’re capable of, in all sorts of ways and workplaces, by God’s grace. But even with differing values and goals we can learn from people like Sandberg about certain kinds of excellence—being challenged, for example, to honor each other as women and men more thoughtfully and respectfully. 

Leaning in to our work sounds a lot like work. It strikes me, then, that Christians have the liberating privilege of leaning in not simply to our work, but to the very presence of God himself—invisible yet with us in Christ and through the Spirit. There is the source of ultimate power to wield, the ultimate treasure to seek.

Kathleen Nielson serves as director of women's initiatives for The Gospel Coalition. She holds MA and PhD degrees in literature from Vanderbilt University and a BA from Wheaton College. Author of the Living Word Bible studies, she speaks often at women's conferences and loves working with women in studying the Bible. She shares a heart for students with her husband, Niel, president of Covenant College from 2002 to 2012 and now leading an enterprise developing resources for Christian schools around the world.

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