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

Sheryl Sandberg, currently COO of Facebook, wrote this book because she saw that our inability to acknowledge gender-bias in the workforce leads to a passive reaction from women, as she “started seeing female friends and colleagues drop out of the workforce”. She realised that in order to fix this problem, it is necessary to talk about gender differences, “without people thinking we were crying for help, asking for special treatment or about to sue”. She makes the observation that staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first cohort of professional women could do, “but this strategy is not paying off”.

The core message is that we need a better dialogue about gender in the workplace. We’re losing too much female talent. Lean In contains forthright advice for women in the workplace but also provides plenty of food for thought, even for male reviewers.

Statistics show that women are grossly underrepresented in all forms of governance in both politics and business. Occasionally, I’ve wondered, what if most women simply choose not to lead? Sandberg’s rejoinder is that we must ensure that any barrier that prevents female leadership talent from achieving its potential is addressed and dismantled. Women and men need to respond to this imbalance; women to dream more, aspire more and take action (lean in); men to better support women in business and the home.

If, as Sandberg believes, opportunities for female advancement are now much more available than before, why has that not translated into wider professional achievement? Her answer suggests that usually, it’s the challenge of excelling in a dual existence, professionally and as mothers, which leads to something being given up; And more often than not, that’s a career. Women outperform academically but systematically drop out of the employment pipeline of talent, leaving female leaders in the small minority. Sandberg notes that even millennial women, who are equally as ambitious as their male peers, are “less likely than millennial men to agree that the statement “I aspire to a leadership role in whatever field I ultimately do” describes them very well”.

We need to think more about how our culture is depriving us of all this talent. We need to make sure that whatever makes women afraid or unable to excel is understood and diminished, if not eradicated, so that they are empowered to lean in.

Women will need to become more comfortable with professional risk-taking, putting themselves forward for a new opportunity without total confidence that they can manage the challenge. Men are prepared to take these risks but women are more likely to suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and hold back. Even Sandberg acknowledges that she’s “a long way from mastering the art of feeling confident”! But, even if women do take these risks and achieve great things, Sandberg believes there’s a problem, as Professor Gruenfeld explained to her, “our entrenched cultural ideas associate men with leadership qualities and women with nurturing qualities”. It seems that by challenging gender norms, becoming leaders and thereby taking more risks, women end up being disliked. “Since people want to hire someone who is both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women”. This cannot be good for progress; attitudes need to change.

In a world in which statistics show that careers are more fluid, “as of 2010, the average American had 11 jobs between the ages of 18 and 46”, professional risk-taking should extend to taking new jobs as well. Sandberg advises to look for areas of growth rather than stability, as rapidly changing environments offer more development opportunities; once again, she points out that men are far more likely to take a career risk by stretching for new opportunities than women. Her advice, “do not wait for power to be offered”.

Alongside a preference to avoid career risk, women tend to plan too far ahead, knowing that one day they may wish to start a family, and “make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices”, which hold them back and in this way before, as the chapter states, “they leave before they leave”. This slows advancement and makes a return to work after childbirth less appealing (because the job they left is less fulfilling and less engaging). Sandberg is careful not to dismiss full-time child-care as meaningful and important for either gender; her point is that “the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives – not before”. She doesn’t hold back when discussing pregnancy plans with potential hires, because she doesn’t want female candidates to hold back when they should be leaning in. Wouldn’t it be refreshing for employers to be able to have this conversation without fear of recrimination and reprisal?

Sandberg offers pragmatic advice to women who choose to live with someone else, “when it comes to settle down, find someone who wants to be an equal partner”. There is strong evidence that sharing responsibility and sharing domestic work load leads to stronger relationships. But even with a great partner, with limited resources and limited opportunities, there’s always a trade-off as ‘having it all’ is a myth and so is ‘doing it all’ . More pragmatism, “done is better than perfect” and her advice is to seek a balance and to “make room for both life and career”.

There’s an important acknowledgement that single people need time and space for their lives as well; they should be careful not to become overburdened by filling-in for those who need to get home to a family.

Sandberg warns against mothers overworking to show their dedication to their career and urges a change of attitude by those who think that working from home shows a lack of commitment. I’ve worked from home on a consistent basis for the past 15 years and know that some of my best thinking and best work is undertaken out of the office. I know I’m lucky to have that opportunity and found it refreshing but surprising that even a Silicon Valley native decries the belief by some that hours at the desk are more important than getting a job done. Admitting to her schedule of leaving work at 5.30 to be with her children was a huge deal at Facebook! So much for West Coast enlightenment.

We all are challenged because we face the paradox of acknowledging gender differences whilst seeking to achieve equal treatment. A manager who is “pointing out gender-driven style difference could be charged with discrimination for doing so”. It’s therefore not surprising that our society has got itself into a mess as many meaningful, valuable conversations are constrained by laws that cannot circumvent the paradox.

So, women should lean in and men should help them. Surely, those of us who want to maximise human potential can agree that we “believe in social, political and economic equality of the sexes”? If we can do that, we can be counted as feminists, however biased we remain. The problem of course, is that as Sandberg concludes, “all of us, myself included, are biased”.