It's hard to say something new about Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book on why women don't hold more of America's top jobs. It was published in March 2013 to voluminous and ecstatic praise, and a healthy amount of criticism, too. Ever late to the party, The New York Review of Books has only now published its review of Sandberg's tome, but the piece is worth reading, even at this late date. Written by Anne Applebaum, it's problematic but also offers some of the sharpest insights into the book and Sandberg's influence that anyone has expressed so far.
One of those insights is so obvious that it seems the rest of the critics forgot to articulate it: A huge source of Lean In's success is that it is aspirational. Women want Sheryl Sandberg's life.
"There aren't that many telegenic, superstar female business executives out there, but there are probably a lot of people who would like to become one -- especially one who earned $845 million in share options last year."
And if Applebaum is correct that "the book offers no real insights into how Sandberg actually does it," that may make Sandberg's story all the more alluring. Lean In assures women that the goal is attainable, but what it takes to get there remains a mysterious je ne sais quoi.
Applebaum also argues that Sandberg should be recognized for -- rather than downplay -- certain traits that have made her successful. For one thing, Sandberg works all the time. "She seems embarrassed by this behavior. But why?" Applebaum asks. "It is perfectly possible that zealous addiction to work and careful attention to detail, especially at five in the morning, are precisely what helped get her to where she is today."
And there's another thing Sandberg has going for her that no one, including Sandberg, has explicitly mentioned: "She surely has an astonishing and unusual capacity to cope with difficult, socially awkward, borderline-Asperger's men: Sergey Brin, Larry Summers, Mark Zuckerberg. This is not a talent that many women, or indeed many men, are lucky enough to possess."
Other aspects of Applebaum's argument are less original, which she admits: Sandberg asks women to change, rather than challenging companies to make work more workable for women. Instead of focusing on the advancement of female executives, she should be directing the women of Silicon Valley to advocate for women in truly dire circumstances around the globe. Sandberg is speaking more from privilege than knowledge of her subject. (On this last point, Applebaum writes, "Very rich people quite frequently conclude that their business experiences (and their money) qualify them to pronounce with great confidence on politics, economics, morality, and much else." Ouch.)
Applebaum also, bizarrely and unfairly, devotes a large portion of the review to proving that Lean In is "a motivational tract" and "not a book that belongs on the shelf alongside Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi." Was anyone under the impression that Lean In is a breathtaking work of creative nonfiction? Was it intended to be? I don't think so.
And most preposterously, the NYRB review takes issue with Lean In's central tenet, that we need more women at the top. "Would two hundred and fifty female Fortune 500 CEOs make a big difference to American women?" she asks seriously. "Only twenty-one ... are females. But is this really a major social problem? Is this an issue that 'transcends all of us'?" Applebaum says it's not, and that Lean In and Sandberg prove that. "This book provides no evidence that Sandberg's presence at the top of the company has directly altered the corporate culture of either Google or Facebook," she writes.
In other words, Applebaum completely overlooks the power of visibility. As the recent adage goes, "You can't be what you can't see." We can't convince girls and young women that they can be as successful as men until half of the most powerful people in the country are female. If female CEOs do nothing structural to make their companies more navigable for women and parents -- though we all hope they will -- just having them there proves to other women that it can be done.
Applebaum's argument that there are other problems that stand to equally impact women's achievement -- men's declining academic and professional performance, for instance -- is a good reminder that leaning in won't solve everything for American women. But Sandberg never said it would.