Pay Up, Lean Out, Unfinished Business and Lean In are all displayed on a black background

Ten Years after Lean In, How Is It Holding Up?

Ten Years After Lean In, How Is It Holding Up?

“Sandberg herself has had an extraordinary career; she is genuinely motivated by the desire to see thousands more women make it to the top and millions rise higher than they are now. She had the courage to become an avatar for a revived feminism in an industry where blending in with the boys has been the key to survival. And she’s given us a new vocabulary: Are you leaning in or leaning back?” (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Unfinished Business, page 53).

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was not the first book about mothers in the workforce, nor was it the first book to make a splash. But the visibility of Sheryl Sandberg and the popularity of Facebook made this book an essential for every working woman and created a catchphrase used to inspire women to advocate for themselves.

Since the rise of Lean In, its popularity has inspired follow-up books and articles that canonize it, demonize it, and everything in between. With Sandberg back in the media spotlight these past months and the ten-year anniversary of the book this month (July 2023), it is a good time to look at what Lean In did well and what other books have to add to the discussion about mothers in the workplace. In the last ten years, several highly qualified women have written books that are in direct conversation with Lean In, including Lean Out: The Truth about Women, Power and the Workplace, by Marissa Orr, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work by Reshma Saujani. Each of these speak to a slightly different audience and complicate the “you go girl” messaging of Sandberg’s classic. In this special book review, we present to you our take on Lean In as well as three standout literary descendants and leave the question to you: which book most speaks to your experience of seeking work-life balance.?

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg

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

Sheryl Sandberg, Former Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and founder of

AUTHOR: Sheryl Sandberg


PAGES: 217


If you don’t have time to read, here is an interview with Sheryl Sandberg about how women can and should support each other.

“Today, despite all the gains we have made, neither men nor women have real choice. Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don’t have real choice. And until men are fully respected for contributing inside the home, they don’t have real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible. Only then can both men and women achieve their full potential” (page 160).

What you will get:

Sheryl Sandberg, former chief operating officer at Facebook (now Meta), tackles this book in the same no-nonsense way she approaches issues in the workforce: she identifies a problem and gives advice for how women can push back. She explains how she has been able to noticeably make a difference in the culture of Facebook and encourages other women in the corporate world to do the same. She admits that she comes at the issue from a unique perspective of privilege in her leadership position and that the reader’s choices might be different, but in each sphere, she says women deserve a seat at the table and to do that they need to “lean in.”

What you won’t get:

This book might not resonate with women who don’t aspire to climb the corporate ladder, who don’t want to adopt typically masculine attributes and mannerisms to get ahead, or who have chosen to make sacrifices to be home with their children. Sandberg does admit that there should be some level of expectation that men should change some of their behavior at work, lean in to more responsibility at home, and advocate for structural changes in work that are currently barriers to women. Yet Sandberg says, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in” (8). This rhetoric left me still feeling that Sandberg believes women are, at least in part, to blame for the way things are and that it is within our power to bring about the changes we want to see. 

Sandberg chooses to focus her book on correcting women’s behavior, attitudes, and choices because, frankly, that is easier than tackling the larger, systemic issues keeping women from wanting to sacrifice everything else for their jobs. While her advice has helped many women climb higher in their careers, she misses the important point that these women will always be limited by the system structured against them.

What I can’t stop talking about:

The advice that has been the most meaningful to me since I first read this book was that women should not step off the ladder until the time comes when they absolutely must, if that time comes at all. Sandberg talks about women who don’t take the career path or the job they want because maybe somewhere down the road they will want to marry, have kids, be home with kids, take care of an aging parent, etc., and their job won’t be able to accommodate that. I like that she encourages women to take every opportunity that comes their way and then fight for better opportunities for all women from inside. 

In Sandberg’s “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?” campaign, she says fear is at the root of many of the barriers that women face—fears such as not being liked; being criticized; making the wrong choice; drawing negative attention; or being a bad wife, daughter, mother, or employee. She says that without fear women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment (page 24). Although we know women face these criticisms at higher rates than men, Sandberg reminds us that a lot of these fears are false, and we can push through them. While there is a lot to find frustrating in her book, Sandberg is unfailing in her desire for women to succeed and help each other up.

Lean Out, by Marissa Orr

TITLE: Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace

Marissa Orr, Marketing Executive at Google and Facebook.

AUTHOR: Marissa Orr


PAGES: 240


If you don’t have time to read, here is a video of Orr describing her book and the motivation to write it.

“To close the gender gap, what makes more sense: rewiring women’s personalities or requiring the system to better meet their needs?” (page 61)

What you will get:

Lean Out was created from Orr’s lecture series at Google about women empowerment programs and what they get wrong. As a single mom of three who idolized and emulated Lean In as she climbed the corporate at Google and Facebook, Orr talks about why the efforts to close the gender gap have come at the expense of women’s well-being. She gives examples of how women have been told to change many stereotypical female attributes (i.e. humility, quiet leadership, and community mindedness) because engaging with the workplace this way might prevent them from moving up the ladder. She attacks modern feminism for prioritizing capitalist aims rather than listening to what women really want. Most working mothers already act as “CEOs of the home,” so why would they want to be that in the workforce?

Orr presents herself as an anti-hero for the cause. While successful women are telling their fellow women to do more and be more if they want more, Orr is saying the system is rigged. She rejects Sandberg’s belief that most women enjoy holding positions of authority and instead believes most women are like her and don’t have those aspirations.

What you won’t get:

This book doesn’t pretend to be even-handed in its take on women in the workforce. It was written to be a response to Sandberg’s book and the changes in the workforce that Orr observed while working in the same tech industry as Sandberg. She says early on in her book that she used to idolize Sandberg but now finds the idea of “leaning in” harmful to many women. The book uses a lot of blaming, finger-pointing, and overall negativity, which may help you feel seen if you resonate with Orr’s experiences but may also leave you discouraged about the state of feminism and the future of working mothers. 

What I can’t stop telling others about:

Orr says, “Women are under the microscope because of their failure to play by men’s rules, instead of everyone stepping back and recognizing that the world has changed, and the rules no longer work” (page 187). This book was written before the coronavirus pandemic, but reading these words again reminds me how applicable they are. We have seen more clearly since the pandemic that the system needs to change. Full-time work cannot be the only valued work with social security, 401(k), health insurance, and benefits options. We cannot say motherhood is the hardest job that requires skill, endurance, and patience but have no path back to the workforce for women who choose for a while to stay home and raise children. The focus needs to be turned away from what women must do to succeed in the system and toward what the system must do to encourage female success.

Unfinished Business, by Anne-Marie Slaughter

TITLE: Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Current President and CEO of New America

AUTHOR: Anne-Marie Slaughter


PAGES: 352


If you don’t have time to read, here is her TedTalk, “Can we have it all?”

“‘Balance’ is a luxury. Equality is a necessity. When we stop talking about work-life balance and start talking about discrimination against care and caregiving, we see the world differently” (page 220). 

What you will get:

This book offers a great perspective from someone who looked and felt like she “had it all”. She said that in the past she was told (and believed) that if she was just committed enough to her career then things would work out. However, at the peak of Slaughter’s career serving as Director of Policy Planning for the Obama administration, there was no amount of “wanting it enough” that could compensate for the fact that her children and husband needed her at home. 

In Unfinished Business, Slaughter expands on the arguments she made in her landmark Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. Unlike Sandberg, Slaughter places this blame form women’s work-life balance woes on the structure of the workforce. She says, “When law firms and corporations hemorrhage talented women who reject lockstep career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over the quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women” (page 58). She argues throughout the book that we need to focus less on how to make it in this system and figure out instead how to rework the system. A society that relies on women to compensate for an undeveloped care system is only going to sink women. “If we can adopt policies and practices that support and advance women at every level of our society,” Slaughter says, “we will make things better for everybody” (page 60).

What you won’t get:

This is not a completely woman-focused look at working motherhood. The point of the book is that women need the combined efforts of men, employers, male and female bosses, and legislatures to make progress for all women in the workforce. While women are the ones immediately impacted by others’ perceptions of women in the workforce, the need for men in this movement is critical. She argues that if we are going to have better choices for women, we’ve got to have better choices for men. 

Slaughter’s husband features heavily in this book, and their example of a partnership infiltrates every chapter. Slaughter says her husband has spent more time with their children than she has, and the kids are no better or worse off for it. When Slaughter moved from Princeton to D.C. to work for Secretary Clinton, her husband stayed back with the kids, worked his full-time professor job, and was the default parent. There are several chapters dedicated to men, tackling half-truths that many men believe and perpetuate and how to deal with these conversations. It is a very hands-on, self-help kind of book.

What I can’t stop talking about:

Timing matters for mothers at work. Slaughter says, “Sheryl Sandberg and I agree on many things. We both encourage women to speak up and take their place at the table; we both want to see many structural changes in the workplace. To some extent the difference between us is largely a matter of which side of the equation to emphasize—a difference that, on my side, at least, is a function of relative age. I would have written a very similar book to Lean In at forty-three, Sandberg’s age when she published her book. My kids were very young, and I had never met a work-life challenge that I could not surmount by working harder or hiring people to help out. By fifty-three, when I wrote my [Atlantic] article, I found myself in a different place, one that gave me insight into the circumstances and choices facing the many women who have found that for whatever reason, leaning in simply isn’t an option” (page 57).

Pay Up, by Reshma Saujani

TITLE: Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think)

Reshma Saujani, CEO of Moms First

AUTHOR:  Reshma Saujani


PAGES: 224


If you don’t have time to read, listen to her GMA interview.

“Beneath the glossy, shimmering feminist promise of ‘having it all’ is a dark truth that no one told me. ‘Having it all’ is really just a euphemism for ‘doing it all’” (page 21). 

What you will get:

A lot of humility. This book is written as an apology for Saujani’s previous book, Brave, Not Perfect, and her numerous speaking tours where she extolled the ideas of Lean In, reinforcing that women could have it all if they were willing to put in the work. After she got married and had kids, she found herself in the same position that tired and overworked moms around the country have as they watch their mental health decline in their attempts to “lean in” more and single-handedly manage work and home life. In this book, she is rebutting all of the ideas that gave her fame and a following. 

The book presents some data you likely have already heard about women leaving their jobs in 2021 in record numbers and having the lowest workforce participation since 1988, unemployment at 15 percent, and $800 billion in lost wages (The California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, page 52). But the strength of the book is the narrative of her transition from a single woman living for her job to a working mother and entrepreneur balancing responsibilities to her husband, children, and employees. You can feel everything weighing on her, and it will feel like a familiar weight to many women.

What you won’t get:

Saujani is an activist, and she relies on her passion to compensate for her lack of expertise. For example, she started Girls Who Code to empower women to enter the tech field without knowing how to code herself. She was an outspoken proponent of women being able to do everything they set their sights on and not letting motherhood serve as an excuse before she herself was in that position. She has the power to encourage, enrage, and take to the streets in protest. This isn’t a technical book, and you probably won’t learn any facts you didn’t previously know, but you will go on the author’s journey with her.

What I can’t stop talking about:

Activism is powerful. Saujani is doing more than just writing books and sharing indignation; she wants to make waves, and she wants you in on it. She once took out an entire page ad for her organization Marshall Plan for Moms (now Moms First) with celebrities and other activists to petition the Biden presidency to pass legislation to support mothers. She says several times in the book that this is a call to arms, and she means it. This book will fire you up and make you want to do something in your own community. 

Final Thoughts

As we mark the ten-year anniversary of Lean In, it is helpful to look at how our ideas, workplace settings, and legislative support for mothers in the workplace have changed since the book’s publication. The COVID pandemic brought substantial changes to the 40-hour office job with a commute and has ushered in new work-from-home opportunities, but I’d argue that transformation isn’t complete for women. The major barrier that still has not been addressed, as Slaughter emphasized in Unfinished Business, is childcare and eldercare support. While COVID may have brought flexibility for men and helped them to get more time with their families, women saw childcare facilities and schools for kids close down and eldercare facilities pose more health concerns to loved ones. They, more than men, were faced with the pressure to adopt both roles at home, providing the caregiving that was no longer available outside of the home while somehow continuing with their jobs. The massive exodus from the workforce for these women is a case study in what happens when we don’t prioritize safe and affordable care options and instead rely on the free labor of women.

Further, these books almost exclusively target working women. We have yet to find a motherhood activist who takes seriously the desires that many women have to take a hands-on role in raising their children, whether that be through working part time or taking a few years out of the workforce entirely. While it is important to celebrate the conversations that have sprouted from Lean In and the women who have taken Sandberg’s advice to climb the corporate ladder, it is important that we recognize who is being left out of these conversations and what changes must happen to better support all mothers.

Editing credential goes to Bethany Bartholomew.

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