The Dreaded Graduation Gift: To Lean In or Not to Lean In?

that is the question for you consumers out there, frantic about what meaningful gift to present your beloved 2015 graduate. If you forgo the shower caddies and Easy Mac, you might err towards something popular and intellectually stimulating, something to challenge and better the mind.

Recently, I read Lean In by Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, except I purchased the for Graduates version.[1] It was a graduation present to myself last spring and my guess is that many others will come across it as we near graduation season. But would it be an appropriate gift for the Class of 2015, one that would stand out amongst the piles of bed sheets and wall calendars, one worthy of its hype and true to its title?


Lean In was quick to garner critical acclaim. I bought into the hype before I even purchased the hard copy and after finishing it, I can say I enjoyed it immensely.

Lean In brilliantly tackles the double bind around women in the workplace. Sandberg details the ways self-fulfilling prophecies, unappealing stereotypes, and oppressive assumptions contribute to the deficit of female leaders. Women consistently outperform men in grades and college degrees earned, and are essential to the workforce. Yet, the stereotypical picture of a “working woman” is seldom attractive. Sandberg also recounts Harvard’s classic Heidi/Howard experiment, where a man who achieved the same level of success and had the same credentials as a woman was liked more. Ultimately, women who act by societal expectations don’t garner the same opportunities; yet when women defect, they are “undeserving and selfish.” Moreover, women are consistently “plagued by self-doubt,” which becomes a self-defense mechanism. Sandberg also argues that women all too often turn down assignments or promotions because of the feared incapability to balance work and family. Federal law and workplace policy exacerbate this, lagging behind in instituting policies such as paternity leave. Thus, most leadership positions are seized by men, leading to women never expecting to achieve them, leaving fewer women in leadership than men… which then makes it easier to dislike women because there are so few at the top!

On the whole, these arguments are crucial for us to acknowledge and address.


Yet, Lean In is not without critique (even from me, the recent Millennial graduate).

By blindly leaning in, we risk accusing women of internalizing deficits when they actually lack the desire to seize that opportunity. Case and point: Jessica Williams’ debacle with imposter syndrome when she declared she didn’t want Jon Stewart’s soon-to-be-vacated Daily Show desk.[2][3]

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The most glaring critique however, is the book’s oversight of intersectionality. The only form of privilege Lean In seems to address is male versus female, almost assuming all other things are equal. They are not. And graduates, whether high school or college, are smart; they will pick up on this.

Perhaps Sandberg can’t speak on her own to all of these things… and maybe some just won’t want to listen to one white woman from corporate tell us how to lean in.


In the for Graduates version, Sandberg supplements the original chapters with 18 guest-authored chapters by other women and men who have leaned in. They range from a small town’s first female mayor to a healthcare entrepreneur and MBA student to the managing director for a social change company.[4] These chapters, including “Negotiate Your Salary” and “Find Your First Job,” give the book its subtitle. More than sage advice, some chapters also offer intensely emotional narratives on eating disorders and rape. As one who has recently struggled with depression during graduate school, I was further empowered by these narratives.

Graduates need to hear these stories. Frankly, their parents should read them too.

Mellody Hobson’s chapter might be my favorite precisely because she calls out intersectionality. In “Own Who You Are,” she shares how she leans in as an African-American woman and president of Ariel Investments. Calling the sexism plus racism she experiences a sort of “double jeopardy,” she also speaks to the racial minorities’ “heightened sense of reality” as they attempt to “break in,” always on the defensive against prejudice. And yet, Hobson is adamant about speaking out on both gender and race. In this way, Jessica Williams was taking a play from Hobson’s playbook—choosing to be “unapologetically black and unapologetically a woman.”

Both are exposing a flaw in the system—that each crystal of our identity is intricately intertwined with the next, and that we leave women of color little room to declare and defend what they actually want for themselves.


Lean In: For Graduates isn’t perfect. Yet, it’s for this reason that it is a good graduation gift for the Class of 2015—the critiques imply a trail of critical thinking, a necessary and highly-valued business practice and life skill. For me, it has also opened the door for conversation. I have a true sense of agency as a graduate. The book’s tagline reads, “Because the world needs you to change it.” Now, I not only understand exactly how I can, but I can articulate why it needs changing.



One thought on “The Dreaded Graduation Gift: To Lean In or Not to Lean In?

  1. Reblogged this on osclgblog and commented:
    Here is a reblog of a post from ASU graduate student Sarah Jones. It’s some great thoughts on the complexities of the “Lean In” message, especially as we consider new graduates coming into the workplace.


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