I wondered why all the fuss around the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, so I read it. I’m still wondering about the fuss.
Sandberg’s basic theme is that for women to achieve equality in the workplace, we need to address the internal barriers women impose on themselves and their peers, as well as the very real external barriers that outdated business structures and societal biases impose on women.
I took notes as I went through the book, thinking it would be a good subject for a post on this blog. On several of Sandberg’s chapters, my primary comment was “Well, duh.”
- On Chapter 8, Make Your Partner a Real Partner: “Well, duh.” Isn’t that what every woman wants? And most men?
- On Chapter 9, The Myth of Doing It All: “Well, duh.” We all know we can’t have it all. Anne-Marie Slaughter told us so last year. (And see my comments here.) Sandberg says we should ask instead, “Can we do it all?” My answer is still . . . Well, duh. Of course, we can’t.
The advice Sandberg gives is also not new. Of course, women should keep their hands in the air and be assertive, rather than quitting when told to quit. Of course, lateral moves can be as career-enhancing as promotions, when taken for the right reasons. Of course, we all need to take risks and to own our own success. Of course, mentoring can come from all levels, and is usually reciprocal in some respect. Of course, women should not leave before they leave (meaning, don’t anticipate the problems of combining work for pay and motherhood years before they are upon you).
I don’t disagree with much of what Sandberg says. Yes, society views ambition in women less favorably than in males. Yes, likeability is more correlated with success in men than in women (successful women are more likely to be seen as bitches).
As an HR professional, I did cringe at the suggestion that managers ask female employees about their concerns about combining job and family. Sandberg acknowledged that this could be a problem, and that HR managers and attorneys would disagree with her, because of EEOC prohibitions on asking gender-related questions. But she thinks the risk of litigation worth taking to bring the issue out into the open. She may have a point.
The impetus behind Lean In seems to have been Sandberg’s 2010 TEDTalk, in which she spoke of how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. Whether because of the “imposter” syndrome, or because they want to be liked, or because they know that work and family balance will be more difficult for them than for their male partners, some women do place their careers behind other priorities in their lives. And women are more likely to do so than men. None of this is new.
Maybe I didn’t find much new in the book because I always believed it was up to me to create my own success, and because I did much of what Sandberg suggests – looking for mentors wherever I could find them, setting my own hours and job expectations, worrying more about results than about likeability. (Like Hillary Clinton, I was “likeable enough.”) When I had young children, I rebelled when I was advised to “find a nice part-time job,” because no one was telling my husband to go part-time. I kept leaning in. It was rough, but our family survived.
After thirty years in the workplace, the only aspects of Lean In that I found new were
- the application of the female work/family conundrum to Silicon Valley (which is disappointing, a generation or more after I entered the workforce), and
- Sandberg’s personal stories (and we all have our own stories to tell).
Lean In is worth reading, if only so you can be a part of the ongoing discussion about how to provide equal access to the boardroom and C-suite for women. The book is engagingly written, and makes some good points. But don’t expect Sandberg’s book to make the problems behind increasing women’s representation at all levels of the organization any easier.
Which points in Lean In did you find most useful or insightful?