Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book review: Lean In, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

I cannot sing the praises of this book enough. If you are woman: read this book. If you are a man: read this book. If you are a robot: buy this book for all your human friends. This book is so, so important right now, whether you agree with everything Sandberg says about women, our society, career-building, misogyny, men, etc. or not... you need to absolutely read this book regardless, it's going to be one of those classic non-fiction books that defines the era.

I'm very selective about the non-fiction I read. I'm primarily a fiction reader, but I have that short internal list of topics that just never get old for me to read about. In history it's the Salem Witch trials and Victorian era. In self-help it's anything career-oriented, elitist, or those narcissistic psychology topics (you know the ones that tell you why you have certain personality traits, why you like certain ice cream flavors, what mental illnesses you have that are undiagnosed, and what your learning style is). And feminism. I just love feminist books, it's one of the most intricate, complicated, interesting topics to read about. What is feminism exactly? Everyone has a different definition and everyone has a different perspective, and feminism applies to just about every aspect of our lives and is different in every culture. Thus making it some of the most interesting reading material. You could read anything from biographies of feminist lady political leaders around the world to a book that debates the societal pressures on mothers deciding between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding their newborns.

And now I'm going to go off on a personal tangent so if you want to skip this paragraph and get on with reading my review, do so now. I had a circuitous path to becoming a feminist. Honestly, I never, ever would have labeled myself as such growing up, clear into high school. I'd always been a strong-willed person in school and since nobody had ever literally slapped a "No Girls Allowed" sign on the door of something I wanted to participate in, I never understood what all these women were complaining about. What do you mean women's rights? We can vote. We can go to school. We can do all the same things men can do if we really want to. Sounds like a bunch of bitching to me. And that's probably the impression most people who don't read a single book on feminism or take a single Women's Studies class have. Or worse, they have the anti-bra, anti-hygiene image burned into their mind. Huh? That's really not what feminism is about at all. Perhaps on the surface those things fall under the heading. But, at least as much as I've discovered, feminism is a MUCH more nuanced area of study and is much more involved with how hegemonic perceptions and preconceived notions affect women and often hinder if not stifle their ability to compete. And once I got to college I started noticing feminist issues popping up everywhere and I started seeing threads of feminism in literature that I read and I started taking classes and reading articles and realizing there was much, much more to it than I'd ever realized. Why did my dad never explain the rules of football to me until I explicitly asked? Why was it that when I planned a romantic surprise birthday dinner for my boyfriend, he refused to let me pay at the end of the meal? What compelled me to bring cookies to work to win the favor of my co-workers? Why did I always have a nagging voice at the back of my head asking me how X decision was going to affect my chances of meeting someone with husband-potential? Why was I in such a hurry to graduate early and start my career as quickly as possible? Why did I keep a list of baby names I like in the back of the Moleskine wallet I carried everywhere even though I'd never liked children? How come every time I went to a family function my relatives tried to get me to hold a baby? Why did my mother push so many goddamn Babysitter's Club books and Nancy Drew mysteries in my direction despite my finding them mind-numbingly boring? Why do people call Anna Wintour a bitch, but Steve Jobs is a visionary? What was going on in all of these situations? There are so many aspects of our lives that misogyny has seeped into and it's so, so much more complicated and frankly sneaky-covert that much of it flies right under the radar of those who haven't trained themselves to stop and ask again: what is really going on here? Why does baking cookies for my co-workers strike me as a good way to impress people, but never dawns on Bob, Mike, or Joe as something they should do?

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is a wonderful, sharp, quick read that tackles one aspect of the feminist issue: what we can do as individual women, what are the subtle changes we can make in our daily lives, that will help us succeed and help our society turn over a new leaf eventually? Sandberg offers anecdotes (some of them her personal stories, some of them from other women) about the subtle ways women have learned to hold themselves back without even realizing it. Behavior that we don't even realize we're engaging in most the time and behavior that many men see no problem in reinforcing with us instead of addressing head on. Many of the things Sandberg pointed out were little, miniscule-seeming things that I'd even done time and time again without thinking. But they build up over time. She points them out, points out how they're really perceived (yoohoo! Baking cookies doesn't prove anything about your business acumen, unless you're working in a bakery) and how making decisions that curb your career progress early on (maybe you don't take that job clear across the country or take that promotion that requires longer working hours because you're afraid it'll impact your ability to start a family later on) will only make it harder for you when you actually do start a family. You often have a lot more flexibility with your job the higher up you are (I mean, if anything, you should be racing to the top of the corporate ladder so you can afford child care and that designer baby bag later on). Or maybe you should really ask yourself why you want kids. And you shouldn't be turning your nose up at stay-at-home moms or dads either because we're all in this together and everyone should be able to choose the life they want and be respected for it.

I could go on and on about all the interesting points brought up in this book (wait, what?! I never thought about it that way... but yeah, I guess doing that DOES make me look wishy-washy instead of dedicated...) But regardless of what I think, pick up a copy and go read it for yourself.

Rating: ***** (5) 

1 comment:

  1. The overall effect of reading the book is feeling like you've just spent a few hours getting solid advice from a very successful friend, and hoping you get a chance to hang out again soon.