I read Lean In and I thought it was moderately useful and very exclusionary

Lots of people ask my if I have read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and what I thought of it. I have read it. I thought it was moderately useful and very exclusionary.

I’m writing this from memory because I left my copy at home and if I don’t write it now I never will. I might have forgotten stuff, and it’s not referenced.

I published this on 28th February 2014 and edited it on 2nd March 2014, and have toughened it up against Sandberg. This is a result of my own reflection, reading Sara Ahmed on whiteness in feminist spaces, and talking with Ella Fitzsimmons.


Useful for white, middle class, heterosexual women in managerial labour, who are new to thinking about gender and the workplace. They and others may wish to disregard it based on exclusionary conception of white, middle class, heterosexual women as all women. EDIT: I do.


I most liked the parts that were Sandberg’s personal recollections on things that have happened to her in the workplace. I also liked it when she turned this into practical things readers can do. These were the most interesting and helpful parts for me, and I would have liked more.

I like that it included lots of caveats about women taking more senior positions in organisations is just one part of reducing gender equality, that not everyone might want to do this, and so on.

Not good

I felt that it didn’t take enough account of other axes of inequality that affect women’s experience in the workplace. I felt that gender was taken out of other categories with which it intersects, like ‘race’, sexuality and class. As such ‘women’ seemed to really mean ‘white, middle class, heterosexual women’ – ie. women who’s primary indictor of difference is that they are cis female. These are the women who are most likely to be in workplaces like Sandberg’s, but are a minority of women as a whole. Linked to this, I wasn’t sure how the advice would translate to workplaces where work is more routine, and less populated by white, middle class, heterosexual women. 

I didn’t like the blind spot around family types and relationships. I felt there was an assumption that readers would be in heterosexual life partnerships, most likely with children, and other ways of negotiating family and relationships were not present.

In this, I have to be aware of my position as a white, middle class woman in managerial work, which may well mean that I found the book less problematic than if I had other characteristics. From this position, it is quite straightforward for me to take the relevant things and skim over the bits about families that don’t fit for me. I can see why others might prefer to throw the whole thing out because of the exclusionary conception of ‘women’.

EDIT: On reflection, I put myself in the ‘throw the whole thing out’ camp. When Sandberg renames it ‘Lean In If Being Cis Female Is Your Primary Marker of Difference’, I will look more favourably on it.

Better (on things to do at least)

I didn’t learn as much about different things to try at work as I did from Hardball for Women by Pat Heim and Susan K. Golant. Hardball for Women takes male socialisation to play sports versus female socialisation to play house as its central conceit. I didn’t love the psychology but I did love all the practical things it tells you to try. I am going to re-read it soon. I read it before I had spent much time thinking about intersectional feminism so it may well have the same bad stuff as Lean In. I’ll find out.

EDIT: On reflection, and skimming through Hardball for Women again, it should be re-titled ‘Hardball for Privileged Women’. So I’m saying goodbye to it too.

2 thoughts on “I read Lean In and I thought it was moderately useful and very exclusionary”

    1. Can’t wait to get your view! I think that post contains good points about gender and paid/unpaid labour, the double shift etc. But it’s not all that relevant to ‘leaning in’ as concept in the book. From what I gathered ‘leaning in’ is a nebulous idea about being more self-asserting at work in order to reach more senior positions, not working more.

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