About five years ago, I sat in a Tube carriage on my way to work and counted three women reading the same book, Lean In. What had started out as a TED talk encouraging women to “sit at the table” in business meetings had ended up as a bestseller, a worldwide network and a launchpad to fame for the speaker, Sheryl Sandberg. It came just after the UK government announced a review into the number of women sitting at board level and while everyone was speculating whether Hillary Clinton would be the first female president. For me, at the time an aggressively ambitious middle manager in a team dominated by men, it felt like the first time that someone had pointed out that the world of work might not be an entirely equal playing field.
It’s easy to write off Lean In in today’s world. When it was first published, its critics pointed out that it completely failed to cater for any woman who couldn’t afford or didn’t want full-time childcare, that it taught women how to survive in a structure that was built for men, rather than how to change that structure, and that it never stopped to question whether this alpha-male, uber-capitalist description of success was really what we all wanted. I remember discussing it with friends over dinner one night and one of them pointing out what she saw as a major flaw in the text: the book dealt with work and with family, but there was no mention of a life beyond those things.
“When does she just go for pizza with her mates?” my friend asked. “It all seems awfully tiring and not really a lot of fun.”
I can confirm, in fact, that life at Sandberg’s pace is definitely hard work. A few years after Lean In had come out, I invited her to take part in a live Q&A at The Guardian, where I was then working. She accepted and what had been a small, intimate event suddenly spiralled to a full-scale production. Each morning, I would wake up to a long list of questions from her team – could I tell them the exact size of the car lift in our building, because they needed to make sure it matched with the dimensions of the people carrier she would be arriving in? Could I let them know what the changing rooms were like, how much space would she have? She’d like to have turkey salad sandwiches to eat before the event – please ensure it’s turkey not chicken.
I tell this not to suggest that she’s hitting Mariah Carey levels of divadom for having a favourite sandwich filling (although why would you go with turkey over chicken?) but to explain why Lean In feels as though it was written for a different world – it was. For most of us, that will never be reality, but it was for Sandberg and it was the aspiration for the women she was writing for. Because, the most troubling aspect about Lean In – the one that even when I first read it I couldn’t quite get over – was that it seemed to require women to be the ones who did all the work in order to finally get to a place where someone else ordered your sandwich for you. Women had to flex to fit the male structure, women had to explain why they worked differently if they wanted their boss to understand them, women had to Lean In merely to be seen at the table they’d pushed forward to sit at. What were the men doing during all of this?
Today, women aren’t pushing to sit at the table – they’re standing on the table, waving placards and shouting to be heard
When I ran that event with Sandberg, the date turned out to be her wedding anniversary. Her husband was still alive and he’d flown over to be with her on the day, even if she still had to work. During the audience Q&A section, somebody asked him how much of the household admin he did and how much she did. He estimated it was still 60 per cent to her. Even the woman pushing for gender equality at work couldn’t get her husband to sort out parents’ evening. It was a clear sign that Lean In, while a career manual for women, was definitely not a life manual for men. It left everyone in the room questioning whether that was really good enough – we know now that it wasn’t.
Today, women aren’t pushing to sit at the table – they’re standing on the table, waving placards and shouting to be heard. #MeToo can often feel like a reaction to Lean In, a rebellion against the head girl who so desperately wanted us all to succeed, but by following the rules, not by breaking them. The problem was that Lean In started a debate that it could never win.
Sandberg being the most famous woman in tech didn’t challenge the boys’ club culture, it didn’t encourage culture change in those laddish start-ups and it certainly didn’t help women get the same level of support and funding that the guys did. Lean In encouraged men to support women, but it failed to ask them to take a good, long look at their own behaviour. And, in the end, those women who Sandberg had urged to stand up and be heard got tired of shouting into the void. They got tired of reading books about how to negotiate better, how to ask for more, how to play the political game. They got tired of being told they weren’t good enough as they were, so they did the only thing left to do: rather than sitting at the table, they upturned it, burned it and danced on its ashes.
Is Lean In still relevant five years later? I’d argue yes. It’s relevant because it shows all of us clearly exactly how the power structure is set up to support men and discourage women. It’s relevant because it challenges us all to take action in our own lives and not settle for less than we’re worth. And it’s relevant because it started a discussion about women and work without which I’m not sure we’d be where we are today. But it also didn’t go far enough. It didn’t challenge the status quo – it expected women to be the ones to change and it told us that success was still entirely dependent on what we achieved at work.