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Sheryl Sandberg, the VIDA Count, and Lessons on Leaning In

PUBLISHED: April 24, 2013

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and VIDA

I doubt that Knopf/Random House planned it this way, but the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead coincided with the release of the latest VIDA Count. I suspect that Sandberg herself would be interested in the data that VIDA has provided regarding publication rates of women and men in what it calls “many of the writing world’s most respected literary outlets.” (Condensed findings: In most cases, women aren’t faring well in these venues.) Strikingly, some of Sandberg’s messages can be extrapolated beyond the worlds of leadership or corporate culture and applied to the world of poets, fiction writers, and essayists, perhaps especially as VIDA has described it.

To begin: Both Lean In and several much-circulated responses to the VIDA count (Julianna Baggott’s March 31 blog post is one example) focus on women and ambition. Sandberg’s main point is that beyond the “external” or institutional barriers to women’s success, women “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.” Importantly, she adds: “Whatever this book is, I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously.”

In other words, her book “makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious in any pursuit.” (emphasis mine)

Sandberg presents both research studies and anecdotes that demonstrate women lacking confidence when their male counterparts do not, women waiting for opportunities to be offered when men “seize” such prospects, and women being more concerned with pleasing everyone around them (or, at least, not giving offense) when men seem to be oblivious to such concerns. And time after time, as I read Lean In, my mind ran to analogous instances in my own and other women writers’ experiences.

Sandberg’s chapters are titled to lead the reader into a specific segment of the overall “Lean In” philosophy. Here are six that seem most applicable to writers—especially women writers, regardless of partnership or parenthood status. [1]

1. Sit at the Table

In this chapter, the overall message is that women suffer from underestimating their abilities more than men do. “[F]eeling confident–or pretending that you feel confident—is necessary to reach for opportunities. It’s a cliché, but opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.” From refraining from raising their hands in the audience to sitting on the sidelines rather than taking seats at the conference table, Sandberg shares examples of women holding themselves back.

For writers of fiction, poetry, and essays, one of the ways to “sit at the table” can begin, quite literally, with sitting at a table of fellow students and an instructor for a writing workshop. I won’t comment here on the ways that gender dynamics and stereotypes crop up in these situations, because I’ll digress to a point of no return (besides, you’ll get a glimmer of this in the next section, “Success and Likeability”).

But the VIDA count reminds us of other tables and other seats. Where are women “sitting” in those venues? Where do they show up at in the tables of contents and bylines and within prominent literary magazines and book reviews? VIDA and its proponents seek institutional change, but what if that isn’t enough? Some female writers who may not habitually submit their work may realize that—like the woman whose tweet is cited above—they need to take some steps themselves.

But as Sandberg observes, even when offered opportunities, women don’t always accept them. One of the most eye-catching accompaniments to this year’s VIDA count was Amy King’s interview with Tin House editor Rob Spillman, who described that earlier VIDA statistics had prompted Tin House “to take a deep look at our submissions.” One of Spillman’s most attention-grabbing revelations was grounded beyond the slush pile: “Although we solicited equal numbers of men and women, men were more than twice as likely to submit after being solicited. This even applies to writers I’ve previously published.”

2. Success and Likeability

Among other salient points, this chapter includes a lesson on the importance of “learning to withstand criticism.” But there’s a larger message brewing here, something about how certain behaviors that get a pass (or are even admired) when displayed by men are perceived negatively in women. At the same time, the messages that women internalize about the importance of “being nice” and remaining likeable hold them back in other ways.

This reminded me not only of my own experiences, but also of the more autobiographical sections in Stephanie Vanderslice’s recent book, Rethinking Creative Writing: Programs and Practices that Work. Here’s one brief excerpt:

During my MFA program, I’d found many of the unspoken rules unsettling, but as a “good girl” I was adept at submerging such feelings without a second thought. I saw what happened to “bad girls”…. Our teachers derided them when they left the bar after class. I knew I had a limited amount of time to learn what I could from this system. I had no intention of wasting my time trying to change it. Instead, I bowed my head, re-adjusted my blinders, and got to work.” [2]

Even more recently, I couldn’t click anywhere—not Facebook, not Twitter, not the Poets & Writers daily news round-up—without encountering references to Deborah Copaken Kogan’s My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts & Letters. More than once, I saw this line quoted:

It’s career suicide, colleagues tell me, to speak out against the literary establishment; they’ll smear you.

It’s so much safer to be a “good girl.” To stay nice—and quiet.

Sandberg describes how she came to accept that being liked—while important and even essential for a number of reasons that she also explains—can’t and shouldn’t be her top priority. She concludes the chapter with a snapshot from her first formal review as Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer: “One of the things [Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg] told me was that my desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back. He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress. Mark was right.”

3. It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

Sandberg paraphrases another woman, Lori Goler, and writes:

[L]adders are limiting—people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women. … The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.

This is a useful and encouraging idea for writers, too. Surely, I’m not the only one who has thought: If only I’d won writing prizes in college … won admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right after college … won a Stegner right after that … published my first book in my twenties (or, at the latest, by my early thirties).

If only I’d somehow followed that nice, neat, direct route to fame and fortune.

In truth, many writers’ paths more closely resemble the jungle gym route. Especially today, with so many new literary networks and publishing venues, there is no single “right” way to pursue writing. More and more of us are late bloomers, publishing our first books after the age of 40, often having spent years invested what might appear, at first glance, to be unrelated work. That may have something to do with why I am encouraged by the “jungle gym” idea. I don’t think that I’m alone.


4. Are You My Mentor?

Mentorship is big in creative-writing culture. In my low-residency MFA program, the faculty we worked with each semester were called our “mentors,” regardless of how much mentoring actually took place during the semester, let alone long-term. Not long ago, an entire anthology titled Mentors, Muses & Monsters provided a number of authors’ accounts on “the people who changed their lives”; the Vanderslice excerpt above is connected with musings on mentorship; and one literary magazine recently announced a call for submissions on the theme of “Mentors and Tormenters.” In fact, one of the most challenging questions I’ve ever been asked in author interviews is the one that required me to describe the role of mentors and mentoring in my own writing life.

Sandberg worries that the concept of mentorship is misunderstood: “Now, young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.” Mentorship is important, Sandberg says, but “the strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides.” Says Sandberg: “We need to stop telling [young women], ‘Get a mentor, and you will excel.’ Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel, and you will get a mentor.’”

Importantly, Sandberg also acknowledges that modes of mentorship have changed. “The good news is that guidance can come from all levels,” she writes. Nowhere may that be more true than for writers, where we can find advice and inspiration from a diverse set of people, in a variety of face-to-face and online settings.

5. The Myth of Doing It All

Sandberg describes a favorite poster that declares in big red letters, “Done is better than perfect.” She says, “Done, while still a challenge, turns out to be far more achievable and often a relief.”

Or, as Anne Lamott has so memorably told us writers, there’s a whole lot of value to “shitty first drafts.”

Not all of this chapter sits well with me, possibly because the book presumes a uniform definition of “doing it all” that relies heavily on securing a wedding ring and attending the soccer games of one’s own offspring. But relinquishing perfectionism and setting attainable shorter-term goals, as well as highly ambitious long-term goals, echo the changes that have helped me and others, not only with discrete projects, but also with entire phases of our writing lives.

6. Let’s Talk About It

Here is where writers who are most interested in—and exercised by—the VIDA count may find their strongest alliance with Sandberg. As she nears the book’s conclusion, Sandberg traces the influences and reasons behind her decision to take up a feminist mantle and her realization that certain gendered battles remain to be fought. She sketches out the path that led to her book, including the stepping-stone of that famous TEDTalk, the response to which convinced her that “addressing these issues openly can make a difference.”

She concludes:

I made this my ‘thing’ because we need to disrupt the status quo. Staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations of women who entered corporate America could do; in some cases, it might still be the safest path. But this strategy is not paying off for women as a group. Instead, we need to speak out, identify the barriers that are holding women back, and find solutions.

Which is remarkably similar to what I see VIDA trying to do.

And that’s my point. For all of the critiques and commentaries on Sandberg’s admittedly exceptional vantage point, she wants something that a lot of other people—including those who are invested in the ambitions and accomplishments of women writers—are also striving to achieve. Perhaps the realizations and suggestions embedded within Lean In may help us all.


[1] This is important, because many of the critiques and commentaries surrounding both Lean In and the VIDA count seem to focus on work-family-life issues in ways that exclude women who aren’t partnered and/or aren’t raising children.

[2] Vanderslice has published her own take on “Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Lessons for Writers.”


About the author: Erika Dreifus ( is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio), which was named an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. Like Sheryl Sandberg, she is a member of the Harvard/Radcliffe Class of 1991. She lives in New York City.


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She's picture
She · 11 years ago
I read your thoughtfully written piece a couple of days ago and it stuck with me so since then that yesterday I wished to come back and read it again but I couldn’t bloody well find it, even though I searched through my history. I was really disappointed because I wanted to internally explore deeper some of the things you write about here. Today I was looking online for something totally unrelated and came across a reference to Sheryl’s book and so was able from that memory prod to find my way back here. Which feels like a digital miracle as it doesn’t happen very often! :) I’ve been pondering since I read this why it is that since I’ve had two essays published recently I’ve felt reticent to return to those venues to submit more work. I mean, isn’t that one of the things writers strive for, to build the kinds of relationships with editors that will make it easier to get the foot in the door next time? I even queried one of those editors about a potential piece and she gave me the go-ahead to write it … and that was over four weeks ago now. If I’m going to be honest with myself here I need to admit there’s something going on. One of the many facets of self-sabotage that live hidden down in the murk of the unconscious. Bringing them to the surface is painful but necessary

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