I’m going to acknowledge the obvious right off. Yes, the cover of this book features a large photograph of Sheryl Sandberg. Her job title (COO of Facebook) is printed almost as large as the subtitle of the book (Women, Work and the Will to Lead). Yes, she comes from a privileged background, studied at an elite university and then managed to hitch a ride on two of the brightest stars in the Silicon Valley firmament in Google and then Facebook. Yes, this looks like a book and an author who, if not actually obnoxious, is certainly going to enjoy preaching from her exalted pulpit to all the unenlightened rest of us about how women should get ahead in life. Certainly the book has drawn some rather vicious reviews.
As usual, first impressions are completely wrong.
I picked up the book on the age-old principle of not judging a book by its cover, and I haven’t been disappointed. In the first chapter, Sandberg acknowledges her privileged background and points out that family support played an important role in her success. She comes across as candid, thoughtful and genuinely trying to help women navigate a workplace that in many cases is structured to give their male peers an advantage. What’s more, the book is easy to read, even entertaining at times. How can you not like a woman who admits, “My first six months at Facebook were really hard. I know I’m supposed to say “challenging” but “really hard” is more like it.”
What I liked most about the book was Sandberg’s ability to amalgamate scientific data with her own experiences and draw lessons that are widely applicable. She talks about the guilt of taking her son to school and forgetting to dress him in a green T-shirt for St Patrick’s day – observing “Guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers” – and goes on to discuss a Stanford study showing that setting obtainable goals is the key to happiness. She concludes “The aim is to have children who are happy and thriving. Wearing green T-shirts on St Patrick’s day is purely optional.”
It’s true that I’m squarely in Sandberg’s target audience: young, female, and (sort of) climbing the corporate ladder. Not all of her advice will be relevant to everyone, and she doesn’t pretend that it will be. But what she is clearly passionate about is encouraging women to speak out, step forward and (painful Americanism though it is) lean in. For that I think she can only be applauded.