Guest review of Lean In

This is a guest review by Ian Bright, @brighteconomist, of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Behind every good book there is a mountain of research. It would be a mistake to dismiss this short book’s discussion of the problems women face in reaching senior management positions in business and public life simply because its story-telling approach is not to your liking. Its style was not to my taste but I read on regardless, drawn in by the footnotes that chronicle important research and details. The book’s strength is in this research, which naturally appeals to the economist in me.

There are 35 pages of small print footnotes accompanying 182 pages of text. These account for 19 per cent of the pages but add so much more of the content. I found myself continually flipping between the text and the notes. Anecdotes throughout are usually supported by academic research that indicates the problem is pervasive or that gives detail that would otherwise disturb the flow of the story being told.

Sandberg, currently Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, is one of the most senior and prominent women in global business. She holds a position of power and influence. It is appropriate that her stories provide the narrative for the text as they provide a way to shed light on the important issue of advancing women in the workplace and society. To her credit, she openly pays tribute to the contribution of Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, as the book’s lead researcher.

The book covers various issues such as the ambition gap displayed by women, the tension that can exist between success and likeability that can affect women particularly, the role of fathers/partners/families in child rearing and the role of mentors. Many issues are approached with an anecdote from Sandberg’s or a friend’s experience, but a close reader will be drawn to the footnotes for details.

The book’s title comes from the advice to “lean in” to tables when at meeting rather than to sit back or stay at the side of the room and therefore not participate. The advice to others – both men and women – in positions of management and power appears to be to provide the environment to allow more women to contribute. Even simple things such as ensuring toilets are available for women as well as men at meeting venues can play a part.

When story-telling to highlight an important topic, there can be a fine line between trivialising and getting the main message across. For some, this line will be crossed at times and they may be thinking “too much information”. For example, I would never ask a woman of a newly-born child “Do you need to pump?” But Sandberg notes that her writing partner, Nell Scovell, “was insistent that we keep searching until we found the right way to talk about these complicated and emotional issues.” Sandberg and Scovell are right. The issue of advancing women in the workplace is complicated and emotional. If it takes a story from a powerful woman to make the issues more accessible, acceptable and understandable, so be it.

For economists, there is an interesting insight into the working relationship between Sandberg and Larry Summers. Sandberg was a research officer for Summers when he was Chief Economist at the World Bank. Sandberg did not know how to use Lotus 1-2-3 (an early version of Excel spreadsheets) to complete a task. Her colleagues appear to have been amazed at her lack of knowledge and apparent unsuitability for the job she had been given. Summers took a different tack. He taught her how to use the software.

Further, for the economics profession this book has great relevance. Women are under-represented in the profession. This is generally accepted and even highlighted by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller in a tweet of March 1 referencing an article by Claudia Goldin titled “Will more of our daughters grow up to be economists?” ( ).

Lean In won’t provide all the answers but it provides a way to think about this issue and how it can affect your working and family life.


Adventures in international finance

The Summit: The biggest battle of the Second World War by Ed Conway is a rattling good read. It is of course about the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, which laid the foundations for the post-war international economic arrangements, and the part they played in the stability and growth of that remarkable 30 years.

I picked it up expecting a book going over familiar territory. Only last year I read Benn Steil’s excellent  The Battle of Bretton Woods. However, The Summit is well worth a read even by Bretton Woods afficionados. It combines terrific storytelling with new archival material.

And what a story! You get a real sense of the physical location – the book starts and ends with the hotel – and the bustle of a huge international conference, meeting everywhere, people huddled in corners. Keynes called it a “monstrous monkeyhouse.” The hotel owner got so fed up with the delegates and the confusion that he threw everybody out before the treaty was entirely ready. Nobody had read every page and the stage was set for much further wrangling.

The characters are extraordinary, from Keynes (who comes across as more unlikeable the more one reads about him) to China’s H.H.Kung, the drunken Russians, the (probably) Soviet spy and chief American negotiator Harry Dexter White, and the obstreperous Indian delegation (some habits die hard…). The book quotes the then UK ambassador to the US commenting on Keynes’ manner: “He was really too offensive for words and I shall have to take measures.” Also amusing is the personality clash between Keynes and Lionel Robbins, another self-confident economist in the British delegation.

It’s always good to be reminded that alongside the debates about economic theory and practicalities, personalities, politics and the vagaries of history shape our institutions.

This would be a terrific introduction to international monetary matters for students, an enjoyable way to dip into some of the economic debate before getting started on it in earnest. And for everybody, it’s not only a good read but good background for reflecting on how international finance is ordered – or not – today, and what it took in 1944 to bring about a different kind of agreement.


Mission impossibility

I’m preparing my new course on Economics for Public Policy that I start teaching at the University of Manchester in a few weeks, and one of the things preoccupying me as I look over the specific material is the evaluation question. Of course impact assessments are a big deal now, and randomised control trials (disguised as ‘pilots’ in the developed world context) very fashionable. Looking at whether policy interventions actually achieve what they were meant to is of course important; and the answer is usually ‘no’ as a host of recent books (The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crew, Why Government Fails So Often by Peter Schuck, Government Failure vs Market Failure by Clifford Winston, Wrong by Richard Grossman) amply testify. But I’ve been thinking more about what the policies are meant to achieve in the first place, the underlying social welfare justification. I started mulling this over when writing last year’s Pro Bono Economics Lecture, The Economist as Outsider, and the philosophical basis of the standard approach in economic policy – identify the market failure and the corresponding Pigouvian intervention – seems profoundly flawed the more you think about it. The recent excellent Interfluidity blog posts on welfare economics spell out some of the issues.

That’s a subject for another day, possibly another book. Meanwhile, I just read The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, lectures by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen. It’s not an easy read, but it does make the Impossibility Theorem as simple as can be – pretty much equation-free, and clearly explained by two of the biggest brains in the business. Maskin’s lecture looks at the implications for voting systems, Sen’s at the informational basis on which one can make social welfare assessments. The book is an excellent one stop shop on the Impossibility Theorem. Useful for teaching it, and also an important reminder to economists who talk about or operate in the policy world that this question of social welfare is difficult and important.


Economics, order and murder

At the moment I’m alternating between intense reading of books and papers for my new course, and fun stuff, while saving the really light reading for a few days’ holiday later this month. So the advance copy of The Mystery of the Invisible Hand by Marshall Jevons arrived at the perfect moment, and it’s a very enjoyable romp – campus novel meets detective novel meets economics primer. Nobel Prize winning economist Henry Spearman uses economic logic alone to solve a murder, the power of the little grey cells amplified by the muscular rigour of economics.

Marshall Jevons is, needless to say, a pseudonym, and this is the third in the series, following on from A Deadly Indifference and Murder at the Margin.

There are many nice touches. I liked the fact that the classroom building is called Hamermesh Hall. I *loved* this quotation from Carl Christ at the head of one chapter: “I have heard an unkind critic say that an economist is someone who would sell his grandmother. This is quite wrong. An economist, or at least a good economist, would not sell his grandmother to the highest bidder unless the highest bid was enough to compensate him for the loss of his grandmother.”

As a way to bring some basic economic concepts to life for students, this is an excellent series, although of course not Great Literature. Russ Roberts’ novels, The Price of Everything and The Invisible Heart, are similarly both enjoyable and educational. (He, by the way, has a terrific new book out, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.)

As I’ve long argued, economists are particularly amenable to two strands of genre fiction, detective and sci-fi novels. The ur-models of rational homo economicus are Hercule Poirot (or perhaps Sherlock Holmes) and Mr Spock, logical, calculating, and totally brilliant naturally. Paul Krugman was famously inspired to become an economist by reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

I’m a detective fiction person myself – economists have that same impulse as the writers of these books, I think, namely to bring some order to a disordered world.

Finding equilibrium

Well, I enjoyed Finding Equilibrium: Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit bu Till Düppe and Roy Weintraub. The story is fundamentally simply: Arrow was a sunny-natured genius who excelled in many areas, Debreu a schemer who sought to maximise credit to himself and spent years fretting about whether he would get the Nobel Prize, and McKenzie was unlucky and undeservedly failed to get sufficient credit for his work. The book in the end puts this down to the ‘Matthew effect’, namely that those who are already better known or at more eminent places get greater credit: “for whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abdundance.” Whereas Debreu is (diplomtically) described thus: “His strategizing with respect to credit was the subtlest.”

The work they all did on existence proofs for general equilibrium was ‘in the air’ at the time. All three men had read the same papers, such as the newly-translated work by Abraham Wald, and John Von Neumann’s game theory: “John von Neumann’s authority fused pure mathematics with the eclectic spirit of applied research. The work of McKenzie, Arrow and Debreu would differently make manifest this fusion.” Early biographies treated von Neumann either as the deranged Dr Strangelove or a genius; Düppe and Weintraub cite more recent and more balanced biographies, to which I would add the portrait in George Dyson’s absolutely terrific book about that Princeton milieu, Turing’s Cathedral.

Finding Equilibrium identifies a 1949 conference under the auspices of the Cowles Commission as a launch event for “a new kind of economic theory growing from game theory, operations research and the related mathematical techniques of convex sets, separating hyperplanes and fixed point theory.” (I can’t resist retelling the story of the cookie recipe one of my colleagues put in the Economics Department newsletter when we were suffering through that work ourselves: roll the dough into balls; place the convex sets on a separating hyperplane and bake in a medium oven for 20 minutes.”) The idea was to extend successful wartime planning techniques to a peacetime economy; planning segued from being a political choice to being a question of productive efficiency in a mixed economy.

The conference was multi-disciplinary. “Nearly all the ingredients of an existence proof were on the conference table,” the book notes. Later (1987) Ken Arrow insisted that if he, Debreu and McKenzie hadn’t done the joining together, somebody else would have, using von Neumann’s work along with Tjalling Koopman’s work on production or John Hicks on consumer theory. However, Arrow stands out in this account for the breadth of his interests. “He was unsympathetic to the manner in which such analysis [ie. general equilibrium analysis] was increasingly being used in economic research; the hermetic spirit of such analyses stood in stark contrast to his open, interdisciplinary-cybernetics spirit.” He disliked the use of the Arrow-Debreu theory, concerning perfectly competitive markets, ‘precisely where it is not applicable’.

The last word ought to be the quotation from Wittgenstein that opens the final section of Finding Equilibrium:

“For it is not merely that the existence-proof can leave the place of ‘the existent’ undetermined: there need not be any question of such a place.”

The logical demonstration of the existence of equilibrium in the realm of topology is just that.