Leaning In to a Contradiction

Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' is full of conflicting views because she is conflicted herself.

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Unlike some of the people who have joined the debate about "Lean In," Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's new book, I actually read the book from cover to cover. It wasn't a good time.

I went into the book rooting for Sandberg, wanting to hear what one of Forbes' Most Powerful Women in the World had to say about her struggles in corporate life. But as I read each chapter, I noticed that it began to read more and more like a gender studies textbook. She cites hundreds of studies, several doctoral dissertations and books written by Harvard and Stanford gender studies professors. The introduction alone has 14 footnotes, and several chapters have more than 30 of them.

Don't get me wrong – I like a well-documented book. But this seems like a little much. In the first chapter, for example, while Sandberg cites sources such as the U.S. Census and Pew Research, the vast majority of sources are obscure academic publications such as Psychology of Women Quarterly, "Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology: Gender Research in General and Experimental Psychology," and even Relations Industrielles, a quarterly published by Quebec's Laval University. Really? Sheryl Sandberg has time to read quarterlies on industrial policy written in French?

Of course, she doesn't. According to the book, she barely has time to put her kids to bed before she's back on her home computer working on Facebook's business strategy at all hours. Curious, I flipped to the acknowledgements of the book. That's where the real story behind "Lean In" is. Here's what I found:

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Sandberg thanks her "writing partner Marianne Cooper, an expert on gender and social inequality," who took a leave from her regular job and worked around the clock "to accommodate my limited schedule." Sandberg says Cooper, a sociologist with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, "lived and breathed this book for the last year and a half."

Sandberg also thanks two colleagues of Cooper's at Stanford, three more Stanford professors, a Ph.D. candidate at the university, and two Harvard professors for all the gender inequity research they contributed. Sandberg further acknowledges one Stanford professor for educating her on gender issues for the last five years. One gets the feeling that this book was being written long before Sandberg came along. No wonder it reads like a gender studies textbook; the gender studies professors at Stanford had a huge hand in it.

Like many readers, I found Sandberg's writing full of contradictions. For example, she encourages women to take a seat at the table, lean in and speak up – and rolls out study after study proving what happens when they don't. But then she recounts hiring a speech coach to help her talk less in meetings. Huh? Research suggests that "it's not a good idea to cry at work," she argues, before telling of the time she cried in front of Mark Zuckerberg, who offered a hug. "It was a breakthrough moment for us," she says proudly, "… sharing emotions builds deeper relationships."

She lays out the benefits of getting help from experienced women in the workplace, but clearly doesn't like to be asked to be a mentor herself. She relates plenty of anecdotes about herself and other women, but they all seem to contradict the broader arguments she's trying to make.

Again, an explanation lies in the acknowledgements.There, Sandberg thanks Gloria Steinem profusely ("no one has thought about women – and all of humanity – more deeply than Gloria"), as well as Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and White House adviser Gene Sperling, who all contributed to the book or reviewed drafts. She thanks another 26 lesser-known and well-intentioned friends who also read drafts and gave comments. Even her college roommate line-edited "every sentence." No less than 11 people at her publishing house were involved with the book as well, which is remarkable these days. To me, this looks – and reads – like writing by committee.