Book Review -- Lean In

Book Review -- Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg Lean In

Lean In has been on my to-read list for quite some time now, primarily because it received a ton of coverage and critical review in the press: see here, here, here, here and here. (And that's just a tiny sampling via one Google search.) I'd love to assume that most people know who Sheryl Sandberg is, but if not, the quick backstory is that she famously became the COO of Facebook in 2013. She previously worked as the VP of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, and before that, as the chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. In late 2010, she appeared as a TEDx speaker, and spoke about the lack of female leaders in the workplace. Over the next few years, Sandberg gave multiple keynote speeches at various universities, which eventually led to the publication of Lean In in March 2013. Okay, now you're all caught up.

If you clicked on any of the above articles, then you'll quickly glimpse the unbelievable amount of criticism regarding Lean In. This is a book that got EVERYONE talking, and the conversation typically fell in one of two camps: 1. Lean In is the best assessment of barriers currently faced by women in the workplace and gender roles as related to the work/home balance for women; it also offers advice to encourage women to pursue and accept vocal and visible leadership roles. Or, 2. Lean In is an elitist account of one privileged women's journey to power; it is neither helpful nor accurate to the average woman.

My opinion: it is both.

Sandberg utilized a great deal of fact-based research related to the issues of Camp #1, and I certainly appreciated reading all of it. I think much of the content in Lean In can be a resource for women in any career field, and while some critics say, "What about the stay-at-home or nonworking women?" -- Okay, she clearly has a targeted audience here, and it is women in the workplace. That is not all women by any means; it is a particular subset that she considers herself a part of, and chose to share her experience to that specific group. On a related note, Sandberg says repeatedly that she is speaking from her personal perspective and experiences and observations. Like, it's almost distracting to the reader how often she makes this disclaimer. She absolutely has the means to make some luxurious choices, and properly acknowledges that reality; i.e., she had and has the money to hire help at home and with her kids, so that she can "lean in" as much as possible, and those choices are not feasible for many women in different socio-economical brackets. Sandberg expressly notes that while her words are hopefully heard by all women, they may only resonate with a certain section of that population, but she hopes her experience, if not her research, sheds light on common issues for women in the workplace FOR men as well.

Here's an example in the opening pages of Lean In that shows how Sandberg utilizes research and then delves into her own frustrations: "A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past achievements. . . . 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. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives--the messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for our partners and children who may not even exist yet." (8-9)

Chapter one highlights the gap between leadership and ambitious, as Sandberg asks women to consider what they would do, career-wise, if they weren't afraid. She says, "Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter." (23-24) Her advice in the face of that fear is for women to be aspire to become leaders in their respective fields, which will enable them to be ambitious in pursuing their dreams as well. In chapter two, Sandberg notes how frequently women act like observers rather than participants at work, due to the fears mentioned above as well as imposter syndrome. That catchphrase is getting a lot of attention right now, but it basically occurs when capable people, usually women, are plagued by self-doubt and feel like a fraud--that they aren't good enough and sooner or later, everyone else will realize it too. These sentiments are powerfully defeating to many women, and to push back, Sandberg says that she feels a responsibility as a female leader to ask other women directly what they think, in order to remind them that they have the right to speak up, and they should. She says, "It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do." (35) Think about all the meetings you attend in your own career: do you participate or observe? Do you speak up? And if you are observing more often than participating, what are you afraid of? Another memorable example that Sandberg shares in this chapter goes like this: she hears a great speaker, and raises her hand to ask a question after the speech. The speaker says, "No more questions," and she puts her hand down. However, the men in the audience keep their hands up--and the speaker calls on them to answer their questions. Sandberg's takeaway? Keep your hand up.

Next, Sandberg tackles the ever-present issue of success and likeability for women versus men: "If a woman pushes to get the job done, if she's highly competent, if she focuses on results rather than pleasing others, she's acting like a man. And if she acts like a man, people dislike her. . . . If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she is considered more nice than competent. Since people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women." (41, 43) She proposes that women combine niceness with insistence, and approach negotiation as solving a problem rather than taking a critical stance. She also notes that Mark Zuckerberg told her that if she was pleasing everyone, she wasn't making enough progress.

Let me pause for a moment and ask: do men worry about this at ALL?

The next few chapters cover more "How To" sort of topics, such as: how to keep a career alive and evolving (Sandberg: maintain a long-term and 18-month dream, so you can be focused and flexible); how to find a mentor (Sandberg: don't force it, find mutual interests and develop relationships based upon that, be gracious with your mentor's time, opposite-sex mentor relationships can indeed exist, etc.); how to speak your truth in a way that builds constructive relationships at work (Sandberg: use simple, authentic language to directly address issues with compassion; acknowledge the feelings of others even if you don't agree; remember that actions are perceived in so many different ways; speak openly about weaknesses and utilize humor to share emotions)

And then Sandberg delves into perhaps the most engaging part of Lean In, for me. She tells women, don't leave before you leave. I thought, Huh? Upon reading that, but it's actually a critical point. Sandberg writes, "By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they will make between professional and personal goals. When asked to choose between marriage and career, female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates." (92) Twice as likely! In college, which is sometimes WAY before female students are even having those marriages and families! This is a post for another day, but think about: don't leave before you leave. Don't sell yourself short on career opportunities for relationship dreams or goals that have not yet materialized. (For a later post: I find this fascinating, because obviously once one has a family, it's important to find a balance between prioritizing what is best for that family, and one's career (and your partner's career, if that's part of the situation, too). And on the opposite side of the coin,  some women actively and happily decline a traditional career in favor of family life, and that is amazing in its own right. So much to unpack there.) Sandberg does view partnerships as critical to workplace success, and encourages women balancing career and parenting to treat their partner (again, she assumes a two-parent situation here, because that's what she has experienced) as equally capable. She notes that it's really easy to fall into gender bias at home, because most people don't discuss how to divvy out chores, but there are always opportunities to adjust the balance of who does what, so that it's not men handling the finances and women taking care of the kids. (Unless that's what you want. Geez, I'm now experiencing the tiniest sliver of how Sandberg must have felt writing this. Disclaimers nonstop!)

My favorite part of this chapter: "When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is to date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects to or, even better, wants, to do his share in the home. These men exist and, trust me, over time, nothing is sexier." (115) Heck yeah.

Sandberg also discusses the challenges she's faced as being labeled a "female" CEO instead of just a "CEO," why she started thinking about writing this book in general and how talking about women in the workplace started to become "her thing." She also calls herself a feminist, and laments the negative connotation surrounding that word nowadays. One of her statistics in this section states that only 24% of women in the U.S. would call themselves a feminist, but if feminist is defined as "believing in social, political and economic equality of the sexes," that number then jumps to 65%. (158) So, three times as many women would call themselves a feminist upon being presented with an actual definition of the word. (Another post for a later day: there are endless definitions of "feminism," so I think that's part of general female reluctance to label oneself as such.)

Finally, Sandberg confronts the age-old myth of "doing it all." She concludes, "If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can . . . and accepting them." (139)

If you haven't yet read Lean In, check it out. You're bound to learn something new, and whether you agree or disagree with Sandberg's perspective, many of the questions she raises as well as the research she shares serves as important reading for any career-oriented person.