Sheryl Sandberg—43, holder of a Harvard M.B.A., protégé of Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, former vice president at Google, GOOG -0.28%current chief operating officer at Facebook FB -2.69% and mother of two young children—believes women are holding themselves back. In “Lean In,” she confronts the conundrum of why, since women earn 57% of college degrees and 60% of master’s degrees these days and are embarking on high-paying, formerly male-dominated careers in record numbers, there aren’t more of them in the executive suite. The worked-to-death feminist explanation has been a “glass ceiling,” through which a patriarchal business culture limits women’s advancement. Ms. Sandberg offers a different suggestion: what she calls the “leadership ambition gap.” In short, women don’t get to the top because they don’t really want to.
For one thing—and this is the most interesting part of Ms. Sandberg’s book—it seems that few young women who earn high-end business-school degrees give any serious thought to how a business actually operates. She describes a speech that she gave at Harvard Business School in 2011. During the question-and-answer session afterward, the male students asked such questions as “What did you learn at Google that you are now applying at Facebook?” and “How do you run a platform company and ensure stability for your developers?”
The female students asked such questions as “How can I get a mentor?”—the “professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming,” as Ms. Sandberg puts it. Her advice: If you want a mentor, impress a higher-up with how good you are at doing your job. She is similarly dismayed by a young woman at Facebook who asked her advice about how to “balance work and family”—even though the young woman wasn’t even married. “If current trends continue,” Ms. Sandberg told the business-school students, “fifteen years from today, about one-third of the women in this audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to.”
All this could make for a fascinating exploration of the differences in the mental makeup of men and women. One might think the fact that the majority of women with top-drawer M.B.A.s would rather not take on the time-devouring stress of running a large business enterprise might indicate something more generally about women and their desires, and men and theirs.
But Ms. Sandberg interprets the facts she describes in a different way. Though she presents her ideas as new, she thinks of herself as a feminist, and like all feminists, she blames “society” for sending “cultural messages” loaded with “gender stereotypes” that discourage women from becoming leaders in their fields. “Society” forces little girls to wear pink and won’t let boys play with dolls. “Society” discourages women from taking risks and promoting their own achievements. “Society” produces books and movies like “I Don’t Know How She Does It”—narratives that tell women that it’s impossible to be a competent mother and a hard-charging executive at the same time. Women “internalize” the “pressure” of “society’s expectations” to settle for less ambitious career paths or no career path at all, she writes.
Here Ms. Sandberg’s book dissolves into a soup of contradictions that foster a single gender stereotype: Women can’t think straight. On the one hand, she argues that nearly the only biological difference between men and women is that men can’t breast-feed. On the other, she insists that having “more women in leadership positions” would “create a better world.” So should we presume, then, that men and women are essentially different? (One of the ironies of “Lean In” is that Ms. Sandberg boasts of her association with Mr. Summers—a mentor, one might say—who lost his job as president of Harvard for suggesting that men and women might have different mathematical and spatial-visualization capacities.)
When it comes to solutions, Ms. Sandberg is equally of two minds: She urges women to take on the career-advancing responsibilities and challenges that routinely shoot men to the top. But she also wants employers and the government to help women along via flexible working hours, paid parental leave and so forth. Mainly, though, Ms. Sandberg wants men to be more like women. “Lean In” is filled with glowing anecdotes about Ms. Sandberg’s advanced-thinking friends: Jen and Andy (Andy “cooks and cleans” more than Jen, who is busy running a foundation); Ruth, who accepted a job supervising 75 doctors at five medical clinics and then promptly “handed” her husband “the grocery list”; and Daniel, who is “the primary caregiver” for his children while wife Kristina operates an investment-banking unit for Fidelity. According to Ms. Sandberg, research shows that wives find these kinds of husbands sexier than the traditional kinds. Well, maybe.
In Ms. Sandberg’s ideal world, “half our institutions are run by women and half our homes are run by men.” Until this utopia comes to pass, it might be wise to take another look at “society.” Society is, after all, a fancy word for other people. And what is society actually telling women these days? It is telling them that they ought to go out and earn a string of degrees qualifying them for hard-charging careers that the majority of them eventually discover that they don’t actually want. As a result, many of them quietly cut back their hours and do what they actually want to do and do very well: make homes for their families. Sheryl Sandberg isn’t one of them, and more power to her. But she is likely to find that nagging men and women to change their natures is a more daunting task than anything she does at her day job.
By CHARLOTTE ALLEN :Ms. Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”