When women’s ears perk up, as they did following the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, my company pays attention. For the last 25 years, our marketing research consulting firm has been studying women. This spring, we decided to apply our research to the polarizing reaction to Sandberg’s message.
My first step, of course, was to read the book. This seemingly simple step was an important one, considering much of the criticism that has come from people who hadn’t read the book. (See Anna Holmes’ New Yorker article and Alexandra Chang’s Wired article.) I tackled the text with an analytical eye, considering my company spends a great deal of time exploring the psychology that drives women’s behaviors. A few pages in, and I could see why the book is making our collective female pendulums swing from one extreme to the other.
Sandberg makes an important declaration on page 10.
“I do not believe that there is one definition of success or happiness. Not all women want careers. Not all women want children. Not all women want both. Iwould never advocate that we should all have the same objectives. Many people are not interested in acquiring power, not because they lack ambition, but because they are living their lives as they desire.”
That is possibly the most important part of the book. Had press and critics noted this, it would have lessened the controversy. Which leads us to the next question: If the book isn’t for everyone, who is it for?
Lean In will appeal to 26% of women 18-67 in the US. I know this because my company has extensively surveyed women in the US, and we understand what values drive their behaviors and shape their perceptions. We noted Sandberg’s values, as expressed through the book, and compared them to what we know other women value. Our conclusion: Sandberg highly values professional achievement.
She expresses it through statements, such as…
- “It’s a cliché, but opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.”
- “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
- “Also, just being nice is not a winning strategy.”
- “Do not wait for power to be offered. Like that tiara, it might never materialize.”
The women for whom this message will ring true fit a psychological profile that we refer to as “achievement-oriented,” and they are best described as…
- Valuing power, wealth, and achievement.
- Working full-time. (About a third of them have children, younger than 18, living at home.)
- Having a stronger-than-average work ethic and tie self-worth to professional success and achievements.
When compared with all other women, achievement-oriented women actually have more in common with men. Consider these facts about women with this “high-achievement” profile:
- 49% of them agree/strongly agree that their “career gives their life purpose” vs. 39% of men and only 35% of the other women.
- 43% of them agree/strongly agree that “having people do what they say” is very important to them vs. 35% of men and only 21% of the other women.
- 41% of them agree/strongly agree that “being wealthy” is very important to them vs. 41% of men and only 18 % of other women.
Typical quotes from achievement-oriented women include:
- “Getting up in the morning, dressed and out the door by 8 a.m. and ready to take on the world… That makes me feel great!” (Lisa)
- “I have always known that I wanted to be successful, I was not always sure what I wanted to pursue, but I always remained positive and looking towards my future.” (Marlene)
But the majority of women (74%) see the world differently:
- “My family is my life’s purpose. Work is a way to allow my family to enjoy our life.” (Melissa)
- “It is not the work that gives my life purpose, but rather the work that enable the purpose of life to be visible.” (Maria)
The tone of the book also has women on edge. Through repetition, certain words set a very distinct tenor. Have a look at what we found in our analysis.
- “Work” is used more than 100 times.
- “Career” is used more than 100 times.
- “Leader” is used more than 100 times.
- “Success” is used 92 times.
- “Professional” is used 78 times.
Other words that could be considered more traditionally feminine are used far less frequently:
- “Progress” was used 31 times.
- “Strong” was used 23 times.
- “Balance” was used 17 times
It seems easy to assume that Sandberg values—and is imploring all women to value—professional achievement over all else. Perhaps the book is best summed up by this quote, from page 79.
“I learned from Fred that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe they speak the truth are very silencing of others. When we recognize that we can see things only from our own perspective, we can share our views in a nonthreatening way.”
If the goal of this book was to start a dialogue, Sandberg has certainly accomplished that. According to our research, her story will resonate deeply with a quarter of women in the US. But for the remaining 74%, the book will not “reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution.”
Most women will struggle to connect with the message because they do not see themselves and their values in these pages. Rather than lean in, nearly three quarters of US women will, in fact, lean back.