Lean In

Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg
Rating: 8.0

“If you loved Sheryl Sandberg’s incredible TEDTalk on why we have too few women leaders, or simply believe as I do that we need equality in the boardroom, then this book is for you. As Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg has firsthand experience of why having more women in leadership roles is good for business as well as society. Lean In is essential reading for anyone interested in righting the injustice of this inequality.”
-Sir Richard Branson, chairman, the Virgin Group

Before “Lean In”

A Harvard graduate, Sandberg worked for her mentor, professor Lawrence Summers, first at the World Bank and then – after she earned an MBA and spent a year with McKinsey – as his chief of staff when he was US Treasury secretary. She was Google’s vice president of global online sales and operations before becoming chief operating officer at Facebook, her platform for this book.

Lean In’s pre- and post-publication public pandemonium actually proved a crucial point: The role of women in the workplace is an incredibly emotional topic. It plucks several sensitive nerves, such as the tension between working and stay-at-home moms, the career penalties that women pay for devoting time to their families, sexism in the workplace, and corporate denial of the fact that financial concerns and child-rearing pressures limit women’s choices. It also underscores one of Sandberg’s assertions: The scarcity of females in the highest ranks of leadership places the few women who achieve positions of power under intense scrutiny, turning them into spokeswomen for their entire gender, whether they mean to take that role or not.

As a case in point, note the firestorm of criticism aimed at the president and CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, after she announced that she would work throughout her maternity leave. Sandberg herself confesses that she was originally hesitant to speak about gender issues, knowing that doing so would put her at the center of an unforgiving spotlight.

Friends warned her that she would be typecast as another strident feminist executive instead of being known as Facebook’s COO. Moreover, speaking from the podium made her vulnerable to the same criticisms leveled at any woman who dares point out inequality in the workplace: Unenlightened men might classify her with the “negative caricature of a bra-burning, humorless, man-hating female” who is seeking special treatment or threatening legal action.

Climbing the Leadership Ladder

The centerpiece issue of Sandberg’s landmark book – the dearth of females in high leadership positions in business and government – although controversial, is indisputable. The data speak volumes. In 2007, women held slightly less than 17% of seats on US corporate boards of directors, and a similar low percentage of female managers made it to the executive level.

The same holds true in government. When Sandberg’s book first came out, women held only 18% of the seats in the US Congress. All of this begs the question Sandberg tries to answer: Why? What is it about corporate America that makes it so difficult for women to climb to the top of the career ladder?

Sandberg deftly identifies and explores the obstacles that keep women out of the executive suite. Despite the early reaction to this book, which is now accepted as a pivotal report from the top of the corporate ranks, her observations are not particularly divisive nor, on the other hand, would veteran women’s rights activists find them particularly revolutionary.

The sad fact is that the conditions that thwart women’s rise to the top still prevail and aren’t improving. Every day in offices worldwide, women face overt and covert discrimination, sexism and harassment. The lack of options for child care and flextime forces them to choose, again and again, between their families and their careers. Additionally, Sandberg says, women have a more difficult time than men finding mentors, and they must work harder to earn the same recognition.

Are You Blocking Your Own Progress?

Sandberg warns of the self-created barriers women place in front of themselves, but she’s careful to emphasize that she was guilty of the same behavior. In general, she writes, women lack self-confidence and are prone to underestimate their value. They’re also less assertive and feel more reluctant to self-promote and negotiate for themselves than their male counterparts. And they want to be liked, which, Sandberg explains, can hamper their authority.

Sandberg offers many suggestions about what women can do to overcome their internal barriers. She urges women to “sit at the table,” and not be reluctant to “lean in,” speak up and make sure their voices are heard. Sandberg recalls that once even she took a seat in the “back corner of the room” for a meeting on an unfamiliar subject rather than taking her chair at the conference table. She makes it clear that female executives who defy the norms pay a steep price. Colleagues and superiors may acknowledge women’s accomplishments, but they also may feel that executive women are “too aggressive” or “a bit political” or that they “can’t be trusted,” even though most people respect and admire men who have the same kind of self-assurance.

Sandberg promotes the equal distribution of labor in the home and advises women to “make your partner a real partner.” Studies show that women who work full-time still continue to do the lion’s share of the housework and child care. Sandberg noticed a common phenomenon among her female employees who planned to start families: They began to “lean back,” that is, refuse promotions or reject offers of additional job responsibilities, even before pregnancy. This impeded their career growth. When it’s time to leave, leave; but until then, remain fully engaged.

What She Didn’t Say

Sandberg’s advice to women about fighting internal barriers is certainly cogent, though much of it could come from any informed, feminist social scientist. She doesn’t mention the advantages firms enjoy when they add more women to their top ranks. And readers may find themselves still curious about her more personal strategies to use in corporate America on behalf of female equality – given her perspective as one of a few leading women execs at giant US corporations.

But readers also will find that Sandberg’s engaging personal anecdotes reach out to them beyond the formality of a corporate analysis, connecting with the lives of many working women, especially those who have obligations to both their work and their families. As even her critics would admit, having such a visible COO lean in and address workplace sexism is a much-needed conversation starter. Sandberg has climbed the ladder and offers readers the perspective of a battle-seasoned warrior looking out from the top.

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