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Yes, you can

Anne-marie Slaughter 

It's a lesson that comes through loud and clear in Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her point, in a nutshell, is that notwithstanding the many gender biases that still operate all over the workplace, excuses and justifications won't get women anywhere. Instead, believe in yourself, give it your all, "lean in" and "don't leave before you leave" - which is to say, don't doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby. Leaning in can promote a virtuous circle: you assume you can juggle work and family, you step forward, you succeed professionally, and then you're in a better position to ask for what you need and to make changes that could benefit others.

No one who reads this book will ever doubt that Ms Sandberg herself has the will to lead, not to mention the requisite commitment, intelligence and ferocious work ethic. She has been the chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008. At 43, she has already had a storied career: research assistant to Lawrence Summers at the World Bank; management consultant at McKinsey; chief of staff to Summers at the Treasury Department; and six and a half years at Google, where she rose to the post of vice president of global online sales and operations. She has also made it to the top of the notoriously male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, where the paucity of women among the ranks of computer scientists and engineers is still all too visible.

Ms Sandberg is not just tough. She also comes across as compassionate, funny, honest and likable. Indeed, although she refers early on in the book to a study showing that for men success and likability are positively correlated, whereas for women they are inversely correlated, she manages to beat that bum rap. Her advice to young women to be more ambitious, which can sound like a finger-wagging admonishment when taken out of context, is framed here in more encouraging terms - "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" - addressing the self-doubt that still holds many women back.

Ms Sandberg's career as a feminist champion began with her 2010 TED talk, in which she first laid out her lean-in message. She followed up with a commencement address to the Barnard class of 2011. Both went viral. Lean In builds on the themes of these earlier talks, bolstered by extensive references to scholarly works and popular literature. She advises women to "make your partner a real partner," recalling how she and her husband set patterns early on in their relationship that made them genuine equals when it came to child care. Her phrase "It's a jungle gym, not a ladder" describes the many different paths careers can take, sideways and even downward on their way up. She also shares Eric Schmidt's advice to her when she was considering a job offer at Google, which was a less attractive option than others she had at the time: "Only one criterion mattered when picking a job - fast growth." Ms Sandberg connects this to the value of personal growth, even when, or especially when, you are afraid.

Inevitable questions of privilege aside, many parents will think, as I did, that this is a young woman's book. This is also the book of someone who has never met a challenge she couldn't surmount by working harder and believing in herself. But for the 229 missing female Fortune 500 leaders, as well as the hundreds of thousands of women who should be occupying lower-level leadership positions but aren't, the problem is not leaning back but encountering a tipping point, a situation in which what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-family balance can no longer be sustained - regardless of ambition, confidence or even an equal partner

That is the real debate here, and it's an important one. Ms Sandberg puts her finger on it when she writes: "For decades, we have focused on giving women the choice to work inside or outside the home.... But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we're failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership."

Ms Sandberg's approach is at best half a loaf. Moreover, given her positions first at Google and now at Facebook, it is hard not to notice that her narrative is what corporate America wants to hear. Young women might be much more willing to lean in if they saw better models and possibilities of fitting work and life together: ways of slowing down for a while but still staying on a long-term promotion track; of getting work done on their own time rather than according to a fixed schedule; of being affirmed daily in their roles both as parents and as professionals.

So is the dearth of women in top jobs due to a lack of ambition or a lack of support? Both, as Ms Sandberg herself grants, proposing that women should "wage battles on both fronts". Yet she chooses to concentrate only on the "internal obstacles," the ways in which women hold themselves back. This is unfortunate. As a feminist and a corporate leader, she seems ideally placed to ask the question that all too often gets lost amid the welter of talk about what women should do, what they should want and how they should behave. When it comes to ensuring that caregivers still have paths to the corner office, how can business lean in?

©2013 The New York Times News Service

Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell
Alfred A Knopf; 228 pages; $24.95

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First Published: Sun, March 10 2013. 21:30 IST