Is Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' a Pep Talk or a Guilt Trip?

iVoice Liz Henry takes a look at what the most influential woman in tech has to say about women and the "mommy track"

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, is set to release her new book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. The book aims to encourage women to “take a seat at the table” rather than stand with their backs against the wall. Filled with data and anecdotes from the most influential woman in tech, Lean In hits gender disparity in the workplace. Hard. According to Sandberg, “Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world,” and she’s convinced it’s because women are “dropping out” rather than leaning in when it comes to speaking up, taking credit for their own success and negotiating their worth in the workplace.

During her incredibly successful Ted Talk, Sandberg spoke of the difficulties women face on their way to professional success and personal fulfillment. She made sure to point out that her criticisms and suggestions came with no judgment. “This is hard,” she told the audience. “I don’t have all of the answers. I don’t even have them for myself.” But the question remains, will Lean In be received as a guilt trip or a call to action?

Recently, Sandberg made headlines when she argued that employers should be allowed to ask women if they plan to have children in order to foster an environment of “openness” in the workplace. Sandberg made $30 million last year and famously leaves the office every day at 5:30 to eat dinner with her children. Whatever her aim for Lean In, it’s not too far off base for many women to consider her out of touch and just a tad preachy. Looking to Sandberg for advice on career success may be like asking Beyonce for singing tips.

In the real world, women are dealing with rising day care costs that rival a full-year’s salary, an unrealistic expectation of 24/7, hyper-vigilant mothering and stagnant wages. It’s not just enough to “lean in” and raise your hand -- the system appears to be rigged. Sandberg accounts for this in her book, but then maddeningly points the finger at women themselves by painting a broad mommy-track brush stoke of “opting out” when, in reality, it’s more like we are being pushed out. The U.S. is the only first-world nation without mandatory paid maternity leave and, as Sandberg notes, women are still doing the vast majority of work inside the home. 

For a lot of women, the “mommy track” allows for an ebb and flow that caters to a lifetime of achievement rather than success during a narrow window of time. Perhaps what Sandberg should consider is redefining what success looks like for women rather than fitting half the population into a model we know doesn’t work.

Time, rather than leaning in, may be the greatest equalizer, but we can’t completely write off what Sandberg has to say. The fact remains that she is often the only woman in a sea of men and clearly doesn’t like it. More women should join her. But how?

Only time will tell.

iVoice Liz Henry is an award-winning writer and blogger. She lives with her partner and their daughter in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @sixyearitch.

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