I’d been working with Sheryl on her speeches for less than a year when she received an offer from a publisher. They wanted to pair her with a proven book writer, but Sheryl was loyal and insisted they hire me. We weren’t authors, academics, or activists. Instead, we had a combined 50 years of career experience in bro-heavy industries like tech and TV. And while we’d both achieved success, we knew our careers had been affected by gender bias. We’d also watched too many talented female friends be mistreated and denied the opportunities that they deserved.
Lean In is filled with stories and studies of how women who speak up or stand out pay a price so Sheryl was fully aware that she was opening herself up to attack. Where businessmen like Warren Buffet and Jack Welch get to expound from a “position of expertise,” Sheryl has been knocked for her “position of privilege.” In the book’s introduction, Sheryl tried to anticipate this criticism. She acknowledged her financial resources and that “most women are not focused on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day.” She also emphasized that by focusing on what women can do for themselves, she was not blaming the victim, but arming the victim.
When the book came out, in 2013, it sparked debate, and that was a good thing. People were talking about feminism! And not just in the women’s bathroom! But the recent attacks describing the Lean In movement as “empty,” a “myth,” and “dead” have veered into what lawyer and feminist Jo Freeman called “trashing,” which is done not to “expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.” I believe the trashing is collateral damage for anger at Facebook where Sheryl has served as Chief Operating Officer for 10 years. While I can’t speak to the company’s errors, I can speak to the vitriol that has spilled over and targeted a sincere attempt to promote gender equality.
One journalist recently wrote that she couldn’t “remember the last time someone mentioned a Lean In circle, or even quoted the book un-ironically.” Meanwhile, Lean In circles, real-life groups that offer support and advice to members, continue to meet around the globe, with more than 41,000 circles in 172 countries. Even this journalist, after mocking the book’s advice, went on to admit two paragraphs later that “Some of it was, frankly, useful stuff.”
Many readers have expressed gratitude that the book included a useful study about how women apply for open jobs when they think they meet 100 percent of the requirements, while men apply when they think they meet 60 percent. We wrote about how success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women—a phenomena that’s currently playing out in the media as more women consider presidential bids.
Lean In is the book I wish I’d read at 25 instead of helping to write at 52. While fleshing out a section on negotiations, I actually burst into tears. For my entire career, I thought highlighting my contributions to a project would get me the best deal. But the book’s research—explained by Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper—revealed that this strategy works for men, while a woman touting her own work comes across as selfish and a bad team player.
Still, to me, the book’s biggest impact has been a surge in women supporting women. In the past, helping each other was presented as a duty that, if ignored, would land you in “a special place in hell.” Sheryl reframed this sisterly support as joyful and strategically smart. (It turns out that when a senior woman is interrupted, a more junior woman can jump in and ask to hear the rest. This action benefits both women: the senior woman gets to finish her thought and the junior woman comes across as competent and nice.)
I don’t recognize the caricature of Sheryl that some have drawn, but I’ve seen the flesh-and-blood Sheryl devote herself to lifting up other women. I’ve watched her advocate again and again for colleagues, friends, and strangers. She has helped women in the United States military, businesswomen in China, and Latinas in a Miami-based circle. She has helped women who are younger and, fortunately for me, women who are older. There are more women writing in late-night TV—my pet crusade—thanks to Sheryl, who personally lobbied then-president of Disney-ABC television group Anne Sweeney to get behind the cause.
I know not every Lean In story has a happy ending. Still, the reports of the movement’s death are greatly exaggerated. I saw proof of life right before Christmas, when my husband and I landed at a New York City hotel bar around midnight. Someone in our party waved over a young friend who took the seat next to mine.
Denné Adams was visiting from Chicago, where she works in management at a top accounting firm. She asked what I did and I gave the answer for women in her age group (25–40): “I created the sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” (I tell older men that I used to write for N.C.I.S., older women that I wrote for Monk, and kids that I wrote for The Simpsons.) Denné and I talked about Sabrina a bit, then my husband mentioned my involvement with Lean In. Immediately, her eyes filled with tears.
“That book changed my life,” she said. “I would not have had the success I’ve had if it hadn’t been for the book.” We hugged and took a photo to send to Sheryl. “I am just so grateful to Sheryl,” she said over and over.
A couple of days after meeting Denné, I attended a lunch where I met two freshly elected congresswomen: Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) and Lauren Underwood (D-Ill), the youngest Black woman ever sworn into Congress. I mentioned my connection to Lean In and wondered if they’d read it.
“Of course, I read Lean In,” Underwood responded with a big smile. “I gave it to all my circle, my sister. That book made me bolder,” she said.
Sherrill also declared herself an enthusiastic reader and praised Hilary Badger, a former member of the Lean In D.C. Executive Leadership team, for her “huge help” on the trail. (Hilary spearheaded Lean In D.C.’s Equal Pay Day campaign from 2016–17 and is currently finance director at Mikie Sherrill for Congress.)
Women are not a monolith. No book could speak to all women. But Lean In speaks to some women and they come from many different backgrounds. And, sure, leaning in doesn’t work all of the time. But it works some of the time.
So let’s not throw out the feminist baby with the bathwater. Two weeks ago, a historic number of women were sworn in to the 116th Congress. All the credit goes to the candidates who did the hard work of running for office and their teams. Still, did Lean In play some small part in encouraging women to lead? As I learned from the research, no one likes women who tout their own work, so I’ll just give a girlish shrug.
Nell Scovell is the author of Just the Funny Parts: And a Few Hard Truths about Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club.
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