So you read Lean In… now what?

Published by:
Hew Ingram
May 16, 2018
min read

Originally posted on Medium, 6 May, 2018

Lean In, written by Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook, ex-Googler and much much more), was a runaway success. It sold around 5 million copies worldwide and rocketed Sandberg to the position of Silicon Valley’s so-called feminist-in-residence, a new worldwide Feminist saviour and even spawned a whole Lean In brand!

For those millions who have read it I wanted to suggest a few things to follow it up…

1 — Lean Out - Dawn Foster

If I could have my way I would spend my days roaming bookshops stapling this book to the back of every copy of Lean In. Foster writes a thoughtful rebuttal to Lean In that allows any reader to see the bigger picture, and think a bit more widely about the problem that Lean In is trying to address. It seethes with anger in the best kind of way — focused and erudite. Foster sees Lean In addressing the problems that white, middle-class women face and writes a concise observation of the problems that Lean In ignores. She talks about how women are disproportionally impacted by war and austerity, the horrors of Yarl’s wood (a detention centre riddled with complaints of sexual abuse from the female detainees which the Home Office barred UN rapporteur Rashida Manjoo from investigating), the way people disregard the reproductive rights of the working class and so, so much more. In all of this she presents a perfect alternative to Sandberg’s individualistic, corporate, white, capitalist feminism.

As a book it’s not a happy one. Foster talks about the problems there are in the world, but it’s not all depressing. She writes with a sardonic wit that stirs the reader to the core, but instils in them a fiery hope.

2. Feminism is for Everybody - Bell Hooks

I can say with complete confidence that hooks’ 2000 book Feminism is for Everybody changed my life. hooks’ definition of feminism is simple, powerful and radically inclusive: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”

For those of you who haven’t heard of bell hooks — she is an utterly pioneering feminist writer, author and social activist, and for many she has been the first intro into feminist theory. She focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender and capitalism, and her books are no less radical and thought-provoking now than they were when she first started writing in the 80s.

She writes from a place of true, burning passion and pain about how the patriarchy impacts every aspect of our lives, from work to sexuality to family, and she does so whilst considering race and class at every stage. She even discusses how the patriarchy impacts men. For hooks, Feminism is for Everybody is the book she always wanted to have on hand when people told her that she wasn’t a feminist, that she wasn’t angry enough, or if they simply didn’t understand what she meant by feminism. (as an aside, I’ve yet to read a book by hooks that hasn’t truly touched me. I’d highly recommend reading anything you can find by her!

2.5. Dig Deep - Bell Hooks

Ok so I know, I’m two books in and I’m already cheating but bear with me. Many many people have written about Lean In and one of the most impassioned and interesting of these is bell hooks’ Dig Deep.

In Dig Deep hooks reacts to Sandberg’s book, observing that Lean In ignores “the concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce.” hooks argues that Sandberg basically points the finger at women and tells them that, actually, if they only asked they’d get their raise and promotion and everything would be fine. As with Foster above, hooks is galled by the fact that Sandberg flatly ignores race and social class in her discussion of feminism.

3. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race - Renni Eddo-Lodge

A book bourne out of a heart-felt blog post, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is the kind of book that, for people of color, rings horribly true and for others (white people) is a shocking view into a world they don’t see. Eddo-Lodge writes clearly about the history of racism in Britain, white privilege and the problems with tunnel-visioned bourgeois feminism. It comes from a place of experience and a place of anger (as with so many of the most moving books on the topic). “I am only acutely aware of race because I’ve been rigorously marked out as different by the world I know for as long as I can remember.” Eddo-Lodge writes. And the flipside is true for great swathes of our country (myself included). We’re told and trained to be ‘color blind’ and convinced that this attitude is anti-racist, but Eddo-Lodge deftly argues that this avoids the issue and is inherently dangerous. The book is eye-opening and very important.

4. A Parable of Privilege - Sindelókë

A quicker read than anything else on the list but, in my opinion, no less important. The word privilege is used a lot and carries a huge number of connotations. As a white, middle class, well-educated man, I’m riddled with it. The problem with privilege is that often, if you have it, you can’t see it. When people talk about privilege, people tend to get riled up — it’s hard to understand or appreciate what it feels like to be on the other side of privilege. This short parable hits it perfectly for me. Masquerading as a wonderfully simple story, it has buried in it a depth of meaning that helped me to appreciate what privilege is, putting it in simple terms that I can begin to understand. People have criticised it, saying that the roles portrayed are sexist or that it’s hugely simplisitic (it is but in my opinion that’s the point). This might not be a book-length piece of in-depth analysis, but it provides a little window into understanding what privilege is and, because of that, it’s very important.

5. What works - Iris Bohnet

So I’m cheating a little here again and being super biased. This book is literally the reason I work at Applied; it’s important to the whole company as it forms the foundation of what we do, and Iris, the author, is one of our Advisors. But all that aside, it’s a great book. Bohnet tackles, head on, one of the common criticisms of lots of books about diversity and equality: ‘yes but, what do we DO about it?’. Bohnet looks at the problem from what, in retrospect, is a perfectly logical approach: debiasing individuals is hard, so lets focus on debiasing the environment or process in which those individuals act.

The booking is teeming with research and empirical evidence — Bohnet is a behavioural economist and uses her background together with psychological studies to present data-backed, actionable solutions. The evidence behind each of the book’s suggestions is often shocking and the solutions themselves (especially given the uplift they will cause) are simple. For me, it was the first book on the subject that made me feel like people can really make a difference improving things in the workplace.


What have I missed? Do you have any suggestions for what we should be reading? Have you read any of these and, if so, what did you think? We’re always looking for something to add to the Applied bookshelf so we’d love to hear from you.

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