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.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

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.


Intellectual fuel for modern feminists

There is one welcome side-effect of the unspeakable online threats made to Caroline Criado-Perez over her successful campaign to get Jane Austen on the next £10 note. It is the realisation that feminists, male and female, still have a lot of work to do.

Over at the Teen Economists blog today Viva Avasthi has reviewed Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, still a timely essay. The classic feminist text that opened my eyes in the 1970s was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

Recently Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead has gained a lot of attention. It’s quite good but puts all the onus for improving women’s economic standing on their individual actions; it omits discussion of the institutional barriers women face to progress at work and in society.

Another fairly recent book, startling in its findings, is Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. It reports research showing that part of the reason women’s pay is lower than that of comparable men is that, indeed, individual women need to ask for promotions and raises. The trouble is that when they do, they are disliked – it’s unfeminine, aggressive to put yourself forward, and male colleagues and bosses find other ways to punish women who do ask.

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide

Other books include Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift on the burden of unpaid domestic work, especially childcare, on working women; and Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women – old now but the backlash seems fiercer still now; and of course other classics of the 70s and earlier such as The Female Eunuch, The Women’s Room, Sexual Politics etc.

There is of course also a large scholarly literature in economics on gender discrimination such as Claudia Goldin’s research, Heather Joshi‘s, Betsey Stevenson’s, and much more. Enough to know that it’s time to act again.


It’s not a young woman’s world

Do economics and fiction mix? It’s hard to think of many successful novels of economics – I’ve posted here before about economics/business and culture and here about economists as fictional heroes.

This week I read a novel applying economic principles to a young woman’s analysis of her life. It’s Saying Goodbye to Verena: What is Your Life Worth? by Ivy Turow.

Saying Goodbye to Verena: What is Your Life Worth

The pseudonymous author’s website indicates that it’s quasi-autobiographical. The heroine is a seemingly accomplished young woman who has discovered that she’s a misfit in the world of work and concludes, using the economic analysis she’s learned at university, that she isn’t economically viable. Her rational solution is that she should end her life. The website pins the blame on corporate capitalism. “I simply don’t have sharp enough teeth to flourish in today’s corporate society. The thing is, I don’t think I’m alone in this predicament. This book is for all of those who find themselves in the same boat,” says Ivy Turow. “It shouldn’t matter who I am and what I look like. Sadly, women’s achievements are often considered less important than their appearance.”

The novel is a book of two halves. The first few chapters describe the heroine’s experiences of work, and her dawning realisation that it’s a man’s world, that diligent application to the job isn’t rewarded, and power games matter in corporate life. The author’s writing style is clunky but lively, and this part is a good read. The passion of real experience shines through. I have every sympathy with her, too. It is a man’s world, and the status and potential of women in the workplace have definitely gone backward since I started work in the 1980s – not that it was great then. What’s more, the UK is low down the international league table for women’s achievement in key positions of power such as politics and the boardroom. The more this is shouted about, the better. While the book emphasises the main character’s struggles because she’s female (at least as I read it), the website emphasises the problems affecting her generation, with a system stacked against them by the voracious baby-boomers. This issue is equally valid.

The second half of the book is less successful. It turns into a kind of Socratic dialogue in which the heroine explains ideas ranging from game theory to Foucault’s analysis of power to her patient friend over lunch. I think the claim is that the economic non-viability of women in modern capitalism can be proven analytically, but the first part of the book trying to demonstrate the point through the emotional power of a good story and sympathetic character actually does a better job of making the point. And actually, I disagree with her claim to be setting out a “proof” because this half of the book omits the sociology of patriarchal power that’s described so effectively in the first half. She could also have made a more interesting point about social norms – having shown that most people are weak and allow an unscrupulous minority to set the standards of behaviour, the interesting debate about why those norms change and whether they can be improved is missing. I would argue that they can change substantially, as attitudes to top pay shifted between the 1970s and 1980s.

Still, the book is quite a digestible way of encountering these ideas. It’s interesting – not great fiction but a passionate and welcome contribution to a debate we should be having on why career structures in particular and society more generally have become once again so heavily stacked against young women.


Turing’s Cathedral, remarkable men and even more remarkable women

I’ve loved this book, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson. It’s a history of the days when computers were so new and rare that they had names – ENIAC, MANIAC, JOHNNIAC, Baby – and of the early history of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and of bits of the career of John Von Neumann and other mathematicians and engineers. It’s the story of the days when the world had 53 kilobytes of random access memory altogether, a significant proportion of them in Princeton, New Jersey.

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Penguin Press Science)

It’s also about the relationship between the Second World War, and subsequent military funding for Cold War atomic research, and digital innovation. Military needs so often drive major technological innovations. Part of the story concerns Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow, researching how to improve the trajectory of anti-aircraft fire during the war, as London was blitzed. My late mother, as she explains in this video, sat outside the gun emplacements in East London during the Blitz shouting instructions to gunners as they aimed at aircraft overhead – she could have done with the innovation a bit sooner. (It was lovely to have this excuse to watch it again and remember her on UK Mothers’ Day.)

One of the things I love about the story is the sense it gives of the atmosphere of the new research establishment and the personalities, and the way invention rests on both a collection of happenstances and a large number of individuals. Turing’s Cathedral has similarities to some other recent histories of innovation, such as Jenny Uglow’s outstanding The Lunar Men.

Dyson is very good at describing the people involved, all extraordinary, from John von Neumann down. For example, a paragraph summing up Gödel’s famous incompleteness result (which I sometimes think I understand, if I concentrate hard – after all, I did read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach – twice) is followed by this:

“After retreating to the sanatorium at Purkersdorf, where he was diagnosed with nervous exhaustion, he returned to Princeton in September of 1935, where he fell into an even more severe depression, resigning his position and returning to Austria at the end of November. He readmitted himself to the sanatorium in Rekawinkel, and then recovered sufficiently to spend several weeks with his future wife, Adele Nimbursky (nee Porkert), a Viennese cabaret dancer.”

Whoah! Tell me more about the Viennese cabaret dancer! The IAS website tells me he had met her when he was 21, in the Vienna nightclub ‘The Moth’. It was his second relationship with an unsuitable older woman, to the annoyance of his parents.

I also like Bernetta Miller, an administrator at the IAS in its early days. She was the fifth woman to get a pilot’s licence in the US, received the Croix de Guerre in World War I for assisting the injured Allied troops and visiting the front lines to take cigarettes to the men, and then became bursar of the American School in Istanbul. After the war she settled with her partner Betty Faville, and stood between Albert Einstein and the world until fired by Robert Oppenheimer, who didn’t like her. He goes down in my estimation, I must say. Strong women – like Bernetta Miller and indeed Kathleen Coyle – not only helped win the war, but were vital to the far harder task of building post-war society.

Bernetta Miller

There’s so much more, most of it about the construction of the computers. Do, do read it. I’ve not quite finished yet, but this line from the Introduction sums up the book: “In answering the Entscheidungsproblem [David Hilbert’s ‘Decision problem’], Turing proved that there is no systematic way to tell, by looking at a code, what that code will do. That’s what makes the digital universe so interesting, and that’s what brings us here.” We don’t know where we’re going, but it helps to understand the origins.


More on women and economics

Recently I posted (Do Women and Economics Mix?) about a new initiative to mentor young women in the world of academic economics. This week Karen Schucan-Bird wrote about her research into women in the social sciences, including economics, on the LSE Impact Blog. She found that in the ‘masculine’ social sciences including economics, women published articles relevant to the REF less than in proportion to their representation:

“Whilst women made up 24 per cent of political scientists in the UK, they only contributed 8 per cent of the articles sampled. In economics women constituted 22 per cent of academics whilst writing 13 per cent of the sampled articles.”

She adds that the gap in economics was not statistically significant, but I assume this reflects the small sample size – as Deirdre McCloskey says, there’s statistical significance and real significance.

The pattern did not hold in psychology and social policy, where more than 40% of the academics are female, and around the same proportion of the papers in the sample were female-authored.

The fact that there are pronounced differences between different social sciences in this respect suggests that the explanation cannot lie in general academic structures but in features specific to economics and political science. The possible explanations for a lower proportion of women in those fields in the first place seem to be either the intellectual character of the subject, and/or the sociology of the subject and in particular peer effects and promotion channels; while the under-achievement of women in terms of publication surely is the result of the specifics of the REF for those subjects and the way the featured journals are edited? Peer review seems to me as an outsider a seriously flawed process.

Having said all this, I’ve not worked in academia and would be interested in better informed perspectives.