Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: Lean In

After dragging my feet for ages, I finally gave in and read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to find out what the fuss was all about. Truth be told, I was kind of nudged into reading it by my brother, who sent it to me as a present for Rakshabandhan this year. If I had had any doubts about my family's opinion of my decision to exit the rat race (I did not), this would have laid rest to them!

As is always the case when I come late to the party over a much-talked about book or movie, I was quite underwhelmed. I didn't hate the book and I definitely found it thought-provoking in parts, but I certainly did not think it deserving of the paeans being sung over the world about it and its author.

The statistics and anecdotes quoted in the book confirm what women in the workforce have known for a long while - that there are nowhere near enough of us, that we tend to be more hesitant about putting ourselves forward and blowing our own trumpets than our male counterparts, that successful women are often branded as bossy and unlikeable, that we have to shoulder a majority of housekeeping and childrearing responsibilities in addition to holding down full-time jobs. We KNOW this stuff already so she is not telling us anything new, but it is useful and eye-opening to see it all together in the same place. Also, it is kind of hard to hate a book if you are nodding along with everything the author is saying.

Some have complained that this book and its advice applies only to a microscopic group of privileged and highly qualified women and does not adequately represent the average Jane. Factually, that might be correct and Sandberg herself admits it in the course of the book. But I don't necessarily get why that is a bad thing. Every book is written with a certain audience in mind and very few target (and even less achieve) universal appeal. This is a book for women, largely in the corporate world, that attempts to shed some light on what might be holding women back in the workplace and how to fix or work around these obstacles. Expecting it to fulfill some broader feminist cause is akin to expecting a rabbit to roar.

Another criticism commonly leveled at the book is that it doesn't really deal with the institutional setbacks, obstacles and lack of support that women face when they seek to 'lean in'.  Again, changes like affordable daycare, office creches, longer maternity (and paternity) leave and even spousal equality are not going to happen overnight. Does that mean that women as a group should put their careers on hold or just blame institutions for our inability to succeed? Clearly, a lot needs to happen on that front and as one the female industry leaders, one would hope that Sandberg is doing her bit to play influencer. But that falls into the gambit of lobbying and reform and is beyond the scope of this book. Here, she focusses on what women can and should do for themselves, instead of waiting around for people and organisations to change. Valid enough, I say. 

While I wasn't quite as blown away with the book as I had expected to be, I am glad I read it. I wish it had been around a few years earlier because it does a pretty good job of listing some of the career mistakes that I made and maybe I would have avoided them if I could have read it earlier.

'Don't leave before you leave', Sandberg says. This was the chapter that especially resonated with me. The following paragraph might well have been written to describe my experiences around the time that Tarana was born, which eventually led to my quitting the organisation I had worked at for almost 11 years:

"When she returns to the workplace after her child is born, she is likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized, or unappreciated.... At this point, she probably scales her ambitions back even further since she no longer believes that she can get to the top. And if she has the financial resources to leave her job, she is more likely to do so.... Choosing to leave a child in someone's care is a difficult decision. Any parent who has done this, myself included, knows how heart-wrenching this can be. Only a compelling, challenging, and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest"

BINGO! I remember that when I did decide to quit, my oft-used phrase about my options back at work was: 'It's not worth my time away from my kids'. After two pregnancies and two maternity breaks, I was not happy with what was available to me. I believed (and still do) that I deserved more but I also have to accept responsibilty for the fact that I should have pushed much harder, instead of expecting the world to give me what I felt was due to me. Which brings me to my next point.

"Women are often reluctant to apply for promotions even when deserved, often believing that good job performance will naturally lead to rewards.... Hard work and results should be recognized by the others, but when they aren't, advocating for oneself becomes necessary."

Again, she could be talking about me here. I worked hard, did a good job and expected that to be enough. When I had good bosses who were tuned in and invested in their subordinates, it was. But that was not the case when I left for my second maternity break and I lost out because I hadn't pushed myself forward as much as I could have and there was nobody to do it for me. I clearly remember an appraisal discussion many years ago. My boss at the time went through my self-appraisal and actually expressed shock at some of things I had achieved that year. Because he had never noticed during the year and I had not gone out of my way to bring them to his attention...

I am also glad she made the point that children of working moms are not worse off. One of my pet peeves is stay-at-home moms who walk around with a self-righteous halo because they believe what they are doing is the best (and only) way to raise healthy, happy kids. I have always believed that this is not true but it counts for more when someone of Sandberg's stature says it, backed by data. I am self-aware enough to know that I am currently at home more because it is something that I need to do rather than something that my kids need me to do. Sandberg's friend quotes her therapist as saying: "Separation anxiety is actually more about the mom than the kids." Amen.

Overall, the book is well-written and cleverly packaged. It's a quick and easy read, liberally peppered by witty and often charmingly self-deprecating anecdotes. It also doesn't talk fluff - most of the points Sandberg makes in the book are backed by hard data from reputable studies and institutions.

I also think men should pick up this read it, especially if they want to do more than lip service to recruiting and retaining more women in their organisations. Sandberg used the terms 'benevolent sexists' and 'nice guy misogynists' and I think that is bang on. I think most men, despite their best intentions, continue to perpetuate the attitudes and stereotypes that hold women back. Just becoming conscious of this fact would be the first step in the right direction.

That being said, I have to say that the book left me wanting. To start with, a reasonable large chunk of material in the book has already been covered in Sandberg's TED talk. Having seen the talk on YouTube months ago, I felt somewhat cheated at finding much of it repeated in the book.

My disappointment also was a function of my heightened expectations, given the number of people I had heard praising and recommending it. I think it is important to be clear about what this book is, and what it is not. It is not the new feminist manifesto. It is not a book likely to appeal to people in non-corporate, non-mainstream jobs. It is not a self-help book - it includes some helpful advice and tips that can help women overcome issues and obstacles but it is definitely not a 'How to hit the C-suite in 10 years or less' guide. And, like I said above, it does not offer answers or solutions to the systemic and institutional problems women face or aim to change established attitudes and stereotypes that often plague women in the workplace.

All that being said, I have to say that I am glad that I read this book. While we can nod our heads along and say that we knew much of this before, the fact is that it is not really out there. I think it is great that someone put it out there and made it part of our conversations. Calling it 'inspiring' would be going a step too far, but it definitely got me thinking and that can only be a good thing.

26 comments:

  1. Hi Rohini,
    Though i have beenreading u for more than 5 years , think never commented here.
    But excellent writing from you. Has me wanting to go and read this book!
    Meera

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    1. Thanks for delurking and commenting :-)

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  2. Sounds like a book you really related to. As usual, well-articulated set of thoughts!

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  3. I've only read through bits of it, Ro, but you summed up my own experience when you wrote, "it is kind of hard to hate a book if you are nodding along with everything the author is saying."

    Thanks for the review, it's a very good one.

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    1. Thanks Suekins. Coming from you (book reviewer extraordinaire), that counts for a lot.

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  4. Even i heard so much about this book, but haven't read it so far...thanks for such a detailed post covering the important points..

    Maybe whatever mentioned in the book is what all of us know, but i feel the very fact that such a book has grabbed people's attention is a small but important step in the society recognizing the need for more women at the workplace..

    When Yahoo recruited Marissa Mayer, i read the entire story with a lot of interest and kept mentioning her case to all i know-a pregnancy in no way diminishes a woman's working capacity! I know not all of us can have such privileges but it is still an important milestone...

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    1. Totally agree. It's a book many women could have written and maybe even made a better job of, but coming from her, it has ensured that it has got picked up, read and discussed on a huge scale. And that can only be a good thing.

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  5. Started reading the book after seeing your rating on goodreads and am about a third of the way through. Completely agree with you that more men should read this. What is an everyday negative experience for women may not even cross the mind of a well intentioned man. I don't know what I don't know and I'm constrained by it. This book helps bring me some knowledge and appreciation of the problems.

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    1. Great that you are reading it! Shall use this as an example to get Jai to pick it up :-)

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  6. Great review, Ro. As someone who opted out of all races decades ago, it was still interesting reading about Lean In!

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    1. I know! I felt that it would alienated me given my recent life choices but I still found it relatable and eye-opening.

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  7. Relate to every bit of your experiences you mentioned. Like you nodded through, I nodded through your review. Well written as always.

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    1. :-) at you nodding through the review. Probably helped that you could picture the organisation and the circumstances pretty precisely :-p

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  8. Great review. I did agree with pretty much everything she said so i guess we needed someone to say it in one place and put data behind it to add heft. I enjoyed reading it

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    1. Yes, the data and the studies quoted really helps. Takes it beyond womanly whining as much of this kind of stuff is often set aside as.

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  9. Great review. I did agree with pretty much everything she said so i guess we needed someone to say it in one place and put data behind it to add heft. I enjoyed reading it

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  11. Great review. If by 'leaning in' women end up more fulfilled and less frustrated instead of opting out because it seems like the only feasible choice, then it was well worth sandberg's while to write the book.

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  13. I don't think I have ever commented but this post made me de-lurk. Excellent review of a book, one that resonated with me. I have blogged about it too and I share the same sentiment as you do. It may not be unputdownable but she surely makes some points that get us thinking. Just like you, I wish she had written this book sooner. It makes for a great gift for young women entering the workforce.

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    1. Hey! Share a link to your review?

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    2. http://sukanyabora.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/you-want-flexibility-ask/

      here you go!

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  14. Anamom1:38 pm

    Rohini, I first came across your blog almost a year ago when I was going through an extended maternity break myself and wondering how other women deal with the eternal dilemma of getting back to work leaving your child in someone else's care, so it is only apt that I delurk on this post :)

    Fair and balanced review, it is nice that you can call out the positives in the book even though you weren't exactly blown away by it.I haven't read the book but the review confirms what I thought it might be. I have read several of Sandberg's interviews on the subject though, presumably from the time she was promoting her book, and it does appear that a lot of it is repeated in the book. Maybe I will pick up the book sometime. One reason I wasn't too keen was because I always thought that the set of problems faced by a mom working in corporate USA is not exactly the same (though there are overlaps for sure) as what I may face here in India. For instance reliable, regulated , quality day care in getting-unsafe-by-the-minute India is still a pipe dream whereas in the USA , it may just be the affordability of day care that may be a factor.

    That aside, ever since I first stumbled upon your blog, I have read almost all of your archives and absolutely loved all of it. Your writing combines wit and humor so well that it goes beyond being just another mommy blog because it is so much fun to read. I so enjoyed your old posts , especially Ayaan's growing up years and could relate to several of them including the birth story and sleep training (To the point of wondering aloud with my husband if our daughter refusing to sleep had anything to do with the birth story since there was a clear pattern there :) ).

    Have you ever thought of compiling all of your blog posts into a book ? I think it would make a terrific book and I would definitely buy myself a copy.

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    1. You are making me blush ;-)

      Now, you have got me thinking about the birth story and sleep issue angle as well :-p

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