Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Four years ago, Facebook chief operating Sheryl Sandberg’s popular book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead came out. The book, with its advice to women to try harder at work, hit American business culture like a thunderstorm. Some found it refreshing, and others found it impossible.
Those who found it refreshing pointed to personal experiences that excellence helps people rise: a little more grit, a little more resilience, and they were promoted or praised. Critics said that women could spruce up their work ethics and resumes and approaches all they liked, but could never change gender disparities built into our modern workplace culture.
Guess who was right.
Women can’t do it all alone
In an interview with USA TODAY, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said that “in terms of women in leadership roles, we are not better off” four years after her book encouraged women to work harder and not give up.
“…We are stuck at less than 6% of the Fortune 500 CEO jobs and their equivalent in almost every country in the world. There were 19 countries run by women when Lean In was published. Today there are 11. Congressional numbers have inched up a tiny bit. And so, overall, we are not seeing a major increase in female leadership in any industry or in any government in the world, and I think that’s a shame,” Sandberg added.
Sandberg, knew of course, that changing the world would be an uphill battle; she said so in her book. But she also set very ambitious goals for her gender: in the text, Sandberg talked about the change she’s striving to see, which she also touched upon in the USA TODAY interview: for women to be in charge of “half our companies and countries” and for half of households to be run by men.
She also said that initiatives like “paid maternity leave,” “paid family leave” and “minimum wage” continue to be important in light of the 2016 presidential election.
Women at work have made some progress, but with CNNMoney reporting in 2015 that women hold just “14.2% of the top five leadership positions” at S&P 5oo businesses, there is still much work to be done.
Women face obstacles at work everyday, but for some, getting a high-paying job can be just as difficult.
The ‘Lean In’ backlash
The main criticism that Lean In faced is that the book expected women to fix sexism just by being better at work: tougher, more skilled, essentially perfect.
Sandberg also caught heat when people criticized “Lean In“ for catering to a specific audience of affluent, privileged women already skilled at corporate combat. Critics said Sandberg had failed to emphasize how the luxuries of her background and social standing contributed to her rise.
The criticism was harsh, and frequently personal. The book has been called “privileged manifesto”. Sandberg herself was even labeled an “…out-of touch elite who hopes to bolster her own reputation by holding women responsible for their failure to advance instead of institutional sexism” by Slate. “The 38.4 million women working minimum-wage jobs already work as hard as they can. LeanIn.org is a confidence game,” a Huffington Post article said.
Women of color have also chimed in, talking about what the book means for them specifically.
With greater experience, however, Sandberg has backtracked on her previous “you can be perfect” philosophy. There are some things that merit can’t fix — for instance, balancing family responsibilities with a demanding job.
“I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home,” Sandberg said last year.
This year, she elaborated on the financial struggles of motherhood as well. “Thirty-seven percent of single mothers are living in poverty, 40% if you are black or Latina,” Sandberg told USA TODAY.
Women are rarely invited into the room where it happens
Part of the problem with leaning in is that sometimes it’s hard for women to literally get in the room. Golf outings, “client entertainment” that may include strip clubs, and even just boardrooms can, in some cases, be men-only spaces.
Last week, Uber faced controversy when news emerged that the company entertained clients by inviting them to visit an escort service in South Korea where women wore numbered tags. A female marketing manager was deeply uncomfortable with the arrangement.
There are other rooms where women may be barred by fear. The Washington Post reported that Vice President Mike Pence said what he doesn’t dine with women who are not his wife, Karen.
“In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either,” the article said. Many cited Pence’s evangelical Christian faith, in which the separation of sexes is encouraged in social situations, to reduce the chances of marital infidelity.
This is literally called "the Billy Graham Rule." It was the evangelist's practice never to meet alone with women other than his wife. https://t.co/KSAPUvlwej
— Laura Turner (@lkoturner) March 29, 2017
Why we have to resist our tendency to favor people like ourselves
Besides a religious or moral factor, it’s also a human bias to flock to people who are similar to you: a 2002 study of the Census by University of California-Irvine researchers found that both men and women favored creating networks dominated by their own genders.
The difference? Women know that they favor other women. Then they work to overcome it by balancing their professional networks to include 50% men.
Many men, the study found, don’t recognize their own bias to favor other men in professional situations, and so they don’t change it.
Getting out of our bubbles
The problem with that policy when it’s extended beyond social situations to work ones, as many responded, is that the separation of sexes at work keeps women out of high-level political conversations. When a male lawmaker refuses to meet with a woman or talk to a woman, it creates a gender-limited bubble in which only men get the meetings, the promotions, and the influence. In extreme cases, if the policy leads to less hiring of women, it is against U.S. law that bans discrimination by gender.
Even worse: it means those men aren’t getting exposure to good ideas. Numerous studies show that companies and organizations perform better when women are well-represented, largely because women bring in a diversity of ideas. Any organization — private or political — that makes women less a part of the conversation risks worse performance, lower revenues and less overall success.
Men who invite fewer women to contribute their ideas also risk groupthink, the dreaded corporate curse in which peer pressure shuts down innovative ideas.
The final judgment on “Lean In,” four years later? It’s this: women should always do their best work, and try their hardest— but individual factors like class and background often play a role in how successful they are at work.