What the book "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg has meant to women
The high-profile executive's decision to leave Meta is also a chance to think about how her best-selling book and ideas about how to be successful at work have changed people's lives.
In 2013, communications strategist Amy Bailey read "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg. The #MeToo movement hadn't yet gained a lot of attention and shown how women can be mistreated at work. The word "girlboss" was not popular. And the question of how Facebook might affect democracy wasn't front and center.
Ms. Bailey, who is 46 and lives in Green Bay, Wis., said of Ms. Sandberg's book, "It gave me this boost of courage." "It made me feel like a feminist because it showed me that if you just push harder and ask for more, someone will notice.
Nearly a decade later, Ms. Bailey said she had been turned down for raises, pumped breast milk in the smoking area of her office, and lowered her professional goals because she knew it would be hard to balance work and motherhood. She has also lost faith in the Lean In philosophy, which told her that all she needed for career success was a little grit.
She said, "It's just not true." "No one has ever tapped me on the shoulder because I did more and was better prepared."
Ms. Sandberg said on Wednesday that she was leaving her job as chief operating officer of Meta, the company that owns Facebook. This job made her one of the most well-known women in American business. When she wrote "Lean In," she had been in her job for five years. Her unique role and success in Silicon Valley helped the book's message get across.
"Lean In" has been a bible and a guide to corporate life for many women. Many others have realized its limits or seen it as an example of what's wrong with applying individual-focused solutions to systemic problems that hold back women in the workplace, especially women of color and low-income women. And Ms. Sandberg's leaving gives all those who read "Lean In" a chance to think about how it changed their careers.
When "Lean In" came out in 2013, it went straight to the top of the best-seller list and put Sheryl Sandberg on the covers of Time and Fortune. At that time, only 4% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were women. In five years, the book sold more than four million copies. The Lean In foundation helped set up thousands of Lean In circles where women, especially those just starting out in their careers, could get advice from Sheryl Sandberg.
The book told women to be proud of their goals and not give up on themselves because they thought boardrooms weren't made for moms or women in general.
Ms. Sandberg wrote, "I still sometimes find myself talked over and ignored while men sitting next to me are not." "But now I know to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I now know how to sit at the table."
Her point was clear: Draw up a chair. The text made it sound like any reader could do something similar to what Sheryl Sandberg did, like throw her shoulders back, ask for a raise, and stop trying to make everyone happy.
Many people were moved by what they saw. Molly Flanagan, a workplace coach in New York who was part of a Lean In circle, said that the book made her take a competitive test at work.
"At that point in my career, I was trying to figure out how to move up in my company," she said. "Things like taking my place at the table were very important for my growth."
But it was also clear to many people who read "Lean In" that Ms. Sandberg's success in the business world was not just a matter of sheer will. She was white and had gone to Harvard. In a few months, she would be one of the world's youngest billionaires.
Minda Harts, 40, a consultant and the author of "The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Get a Seat at the Table," said, "It's hard for Black women to lean in when you're not even in the room." She remembered feeling angry when her white coworkers told her to read Ms. Sandberg's book. "I was thinking, There's no way I could just walk up to Sergey Brin's door and tell him, 'I don't have a parking spot.'"
In a 2013 review, feminist thinker bell hooks said it straight out. Ms. hooks wrote that Sandberg sometimes makes people think of the old stereotypes about used car salesmen. "She sells her product well, and she sells it."
And many women felt that Ms. Sandberg's book, which focused on how each person should change instead of how the workplace as a whole should change, didn't just give bad advice about how to deal with inequality. It showed what the problem was all about.
"Without any structural changes, you're relying 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, to put it another way, the fact that one corporate lawyer could hire several babysitters so she could work late into the night on her way to becoming a partner wasn't going to help everyone else with the lack of child care.
Some people, especially younger women, didn't like Ms. Sandberg's book right away, which she called "sort of a feminist manifesto." Others got better at criticizing over time, either because they learned from their own lives that speaking up more in meetings wouldn't get them to the top of a male-dominated corporate world, or because they saw who that strategy would help the most.
"Society has changed, and now we pay a lot more attention to the structural disadvantages women face, like sexual harassment, lack of child care, and no paid national maternity leave," said feminist columnist Katha Pollitt, who remembered that many of her friends and her own daughter found "Lean In" to be full of good advice when it came out. "People no longer think that women's careers depend on how much gumption they have."
In 2013, 38-year-old Katherine Goldstein and some of her friends started a Lean In circle. The book inspired three of the group's seven members to ask for raises, which they got.
The author of the newsletter The Double Shift, Ms. Goldstein, said, "It felt like a great plan for how to think about my life going forward."
But after Ms. Goldstein gave birth to a child with health problems and then lost her high-profile job in the media, the advice in the book started to seem like a waste of time. She said, "It helps me now as an intellectual counterpoint to what I no longer believe and don't want to be."
Even though "Lean In" eventually got a lot of negative feedback, millions of women saw something of themselves in Ms. Sandberg's megawatt success.
Rachel Sklar, an entrepreneur who was part of the team that promoted the book "Lean In" before it came out, said, "I always talk about it as a "before and after" situation." "It became a shorthand way to talk about a problem that had been known but not named before."
Ms. Sklar thinks that some of the criticism of Ms. Sandberg since her book came out has gone too far. Ms. Sklar said, "Male business leaders write books all the time, and no one notices how well their books hold up over time."
Even more attention was paid to Ms. Sandberg as the public's view of her company got worse. When Facebook was criticized for spreading false information during the 2016 election, some of the anger was aimed at Ms. Sandberg, who was in charge of the policy and security team. In 2018, she was blamed for some of the problems that came out of the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal. On top of that, research has shown that Meta, the company that owns Instagram, has hurt the mental health of teenage girls. Some people thought that Ms. Sandberg's public message kept focusing too much on individual ambition and success and not enough on the social value of the company she led.
Rosa Brooks, 51, a professor at Georgetown University's law school, said, "Not everything should be leaned into." She also said that Ms. Sandberg's time as leader raised deeper questions about her work philosophy. "The question isn't just, 'How do I succeed in my job?' but also, 'How do I change my job and make it a force for good?'"
Last month, when a draft ruling showed that the Supreme Court planned to overturn Roe v. Wade, Ms. Sandberg released a statement saying that she was sad that women would no longer be able to get abortions.
Ms. Sandberg wrote on Facebook, "This is a scary day for women all over our country." "Every woman, no matter where she lives, should be able to decide for herself if and when she wants to have a child."
Some women saw the post as another sign that Ms. Sandberg's personal beliefs wouldn't make much of a difference and that it was more important to focus on changing policies as a whole. Ms. Sandberg's company didn't say anything about how they felt about abortion access. A recording that The Verge got a few weeks later showed that a Meta executive had told employees not to talk about abortion on the company's internal platform, called Workplace, because it was a divisive subject. Meta did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Sandberg's approach to gender in the workplace has had an effect on both those who support her and those who don't.
Ms. Sandberg's writing inspired Ms. Harts, a workplace consultant. She decided to write a playbook for women like herself who didn't see themselves in "Lean In." Seven years ago, Ms. Harts started The Memo, an organization that helps women of color get ahead in their careers. Since then, a lot of people, including Black women who work at Meta, have sent her emails thanking her for advice that seemed more relevant to their lives.
"It's not always true for women of color that you can work hard and get ahead," Ms. Harts said.
Now, even Ms. Sandberg is stopping to take a break. In a Facebook post on Wednesday, she announced that she was leaving her job. She said that during the next part of her life, she would get married this summer and focus on her children, philanthropy, and other things that might not be as planned as the rest of her career.
"I'm not sure what will happen in the future," she wrote. "I've learned that no one is ever perfect."