When the book came out there was a whole contingent of people who praised it as a feminist manifesto and then another big group who took issue with the privilege Sandburg experiences and the lack of wide applicability to women. To summarize each side poorly, I think you can read the book and see it as motivation to engage further in your job or you can condemn it for putting the blame on women for not taking an active enough role in their careers (or choosing anything other than a career as your main motivation in life!) and for overlooking the societal predispositions holding people back.
Years ago I chose not to read this book after having read a few scalding reviews which left me with a negative impression of it. After all, Sandburg has no idea what it means to be lower-class or non-white or a single parent and clearly overlooks many of the issues those groups feel.
A year ago, however, I attended Grace Hopper (a conference for women in computing) where Sandburg gave a keynote talk. While I went into the talk with a slight bias, I found Sandburg's rhetoric and enthusiasm and intelligence inspiring. She talked about how she had come to understand some of the things she had once taken for granted in the months since her husband's death. It was incredible to hear someone acknowledge their mistakes and offer their new insights.
So, when my aunt highly recommended the audiobook to me I decided to give it a try.
Having read it, I understand both sides of the argument.
On one hand, Sandburg points out ways that one can "lean in" to one's career/interests that I find to be very useful. I've spent many meetings being silent. I've sat on the outside of the room. I've held back my opinion because I wasn't 100% confident in it (even if I was 75+%). I routinely decline compliments. I feel impostor syndrome about everything. I apologize when I interrupt. I apologize when I ask questions. I cry when I get stressed (Lean In actually sends some mixed messages about showing emotion). It's useful for me to be reminded to speak out and that a lot of this is in my head and me amplifying "expectations" onto myself. I can see how this could help a person speak up in a meeting and not let themselves be talked over.
On the other hand, Sandburg does come from a different background than the average woman. She attended an Ivy League school. She (at the time of writing) had a fully-devoted spouse who was willing to transfer cities to be with and support her. She is white. She has a lot of money to help with childcare and chores. Her understanding of the career ladder and company politics is based on white collar positions. Undoubtedly, this book is not intended for people who are not somewhat similar to her.
I think it's worth noting that Sandburg does attempt to acknowledge her privilege. She mentions several times per chapter how she was lucky in ways X, Y, and Z. This book was not written with every woman in mind, and so Sandburg's Forward (where she hopefully calls the book a manifesto) and the book's supporters are somewhat unfair in suggesting it's something besides what it is. It raises the expectations of widespread applicability that the book simply can't maintain.
My reading of Lean In is that it's a great motivational book for someone who already has a foot in the door. It does, however, tend to suggest that, given that foot in the door, it's your own goddamn fault if you don't get your whole body through it.
On a personal level, I find this motivating. I want to speak up. I want to reach out. I want to lean in.
On a societal level, I think this is only the tiniest step. If the people who read this book do manage to push themselves to achieve higher positions and use that to help open the doors for women everywhere, then maybe this is something.
I don't agree with all of Sandburg's opinions. I feel frustrated by her dismissal of women (or men!) who choose childcare as a primary interest. I think different people have varying life goals/motivations and it's unfair to judge others based on your criteria of success (money, power, happiness, family, career, etc). But, I recognize that she's writing for people who share the same end-goal as she does. And for that goal, it's very useful.
This was an interesting read that definitely made me think about my own approach to my career and personal life. I appreciate the introspection it achieved while acknowledging that much of that introspection was motivated by previous readers who dissected the book years before me and gave me more to think about. It's a tough and challenging topic and I wish there was more conversation about it.