What 'Lean In' Misunderstands About Gender Differences

What if difference between men and women turns out to be a phenomenon not of oppression, but rather of social well-being?
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There is much to admire in Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. It is full of funny stories about her brilliant career and helpful advice for workplace success. As former chief of staff at the U.S. Treasury Department and vice-president of Google, and now COO of Facebook, the 43-year-old billionaire and mother of two has a lot of worldly wisdom to share. She is right that many women sell themselves short and pull back too early from their careers. Sandberg urges them to man up.

But this otherwise likeable and inspirational self-help book has a serious flaw: It is mired in 1970s-style feminism. Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt compares Sandberg to "someone who's just taken Women's Studies 101 and wants to share it with her friends." What Pollitt intends as a compliment goes to the heart of what is wrong with Lean In.

Sandberg envisions a time where gender roles all but disappear. "A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes." She blames society for tricking little girls into liking princesses and little boys into preferring superheroes. "The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophesies."

Sandberg excels at the forward edge of economics and technology, but her sociology leans back to the Age of Aquarius. She praises to the skies Marlo Thomas's 1972 unisex album "Free to Be You and Me." She wants to bring back consciousness-raising groups, calling them "Lean in Circles." Women are advised to meet together and carry out "Listen, ask, and share" exercises. Sandberg's "Lean In" website provides "exploration kits" for these séances. One instructs group members to go round the room and finish sentences like "What I am most looking forward to in the month ahead..." and "Today I am feeling..." Is this how Mark Zuckerberg got to the top?

Sandberg's goal is to liberate her fellow Americans from the stereotypes of gender. But is that truly liberating? In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. But the most fascinating finding is this: Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies. According to the authors, "Higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures." New York Times science columnist John Tierney summarized the study this way: "It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India's or Zimbabwe's than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France."

Why should that be? The authors of the study hypothesize that prosperity and equality bring greater opportunities for self-actualization. Wealth, freedom, and education empower men and women to be who they are. It is conspicuously the case that gay liberation is a feature of advanced, prosperous societies: but such societies also afford heterosexuals more opportunities to embrace their gender identities. This cross-cultural research is far from conclusive, but it is intriguing and has great explanatory power. Just think: What if gender difference turns out to be a phenomenon not of oppression, but rather of social well-being?

Presented by

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is author of The War Against Boys and Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History–and Why it Matters.

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