Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


Early in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she addresses the common human issue known as “unconscious bias.”  Even the forward-thinking founder of Google, Sergey Brin, was not immune to this as illustrated when pregnant Sheryl informed him that the company had no pregnancy parking.  She added that, like Sergey, she had not noticed this unserved need.  She, too, had an unconscious bias until it became very personal.  “The other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, not wanting to ask for special treatment.”  “Or,” she added, “maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed.”

Men run the world, holding most of the positions of influence and power.  Everything from corporate structures, government policies, and the financial communities have been designed by men and, so, have an inherent bias that favors men.  As Sheryl advanced in her career, she found that her colleagues were increasingly more male and she began to wonder why.  Sheryl shared an anecdote about visiting a company to pitch a deal when she stumped the senior partner by asking the simple question, “Where’s the women’s restroom?” He hadn’t noticed the absence of that accommodation until then.

According to Ms. Sandberg, a 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.  She says that in addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers within themselves.  “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.”  She says fear is at the root of many of the barriers for women, ranging from fear of not being liked, to fear of making a wrong choice, to fear of being judged and fear of failure.  Sheryl tells us that, when she observes that she is fearing failure, she actively “distorts the distortion” by reminding herself of her successes.  Another tactic she uses when not feeling confident is to just “fake it.”  Research says it works!

From Sheryl’s point of view, women also become self-limiting when they plan for life changes that may never occur such as acquiring a partner and having children.  Perhaps for these reasons, together with self-doubt, Sheryl notes that women frequently don’t have the aspirations of men for executive leadership roles.  Certainly anyone representing a group that wishes to secure decisions and policies that serve them should seek the requisite leadership roles.  It’s worth considering, however, that the method and framework for women to engage fully may be different from existing structures which have been built by men.  There are segments of women who wish to lead corporations and world governments, and segments of women who prefer other structures and paths to leadership and fulfillment.  In keeping with Sheryl’s theme, women who prefer a different structure for engagement should lean in to make it happen.

Sheryl says she was raised to believe that girls could do anything boys could do and that all career paths were open to her.  Interestingly most of her female college peers have chosen to be volunteers, part-time employees, or stay-at-home moms which may say something about their socioeconomic status.  According to Sheryl’s stats, 41% of mothers are primary income earners and 23% of mothers are co-income earners for their households.  The number of households headed by a single mothers has been on the rise and, as of the book’s writing, it was one in five.

While girls continue to outperform boys in education, careers demand maximum performance at a critical time for child-bearing.  Many girls don’t want to “make the mistakes their mothers have made.”  However, career progression also calls for risk taking and advocating for oneself.  These are qualities that are often discouraged in girls.  Sheryl sees this as a “leadership ambition gap.”  She references a 2012 McKinsey report in which 36% of men wanted to reach the C-suite compared to only 18% of women.  According to Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values at Work, “women are not thinking about having it all, they’re worried about losing it all.”  However, Sheryl admits that “many have argued with me that ambition is not the problem.  Women are not less ambitious than men….but more enlightened with different and more meaningful goals.”

What do you think about Sheryl’s call for women to stop sitting back and, instead, lean in?

Here’s more from Sheryl . . .

Success and likeability:  “For men, professional success comes with positive reinforcement at every step of the way.  For women, even when they’re recognized for their achievements, they’re often regarded unfavorably.”  “….both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but she is not well-liked by her peers or she’s too aggressive, not a team player, a bit political, can’t be trusted, is difficult.”  “When a woman acts forcefully or competitively, she’s deviating from expected behavior.  If she focuses on results rather than pleasing others, she’s acting like a man and when she acts like a man people don’t like her.

Provocative statements from Lean In:

  • Women put themselves down before others can.
  • When a woman does anything that signals she might not be nice first and foremost, it creates a negative impression and makes us uncomfortable.
  • Since women are expected to be concerned with others, when they advocate for themselves or point to their own value, both men and women react unfavorably.
  • No man at an executive level would consider taking the first offer.
  • When negotiating, think personally, act communally.
  • A woman’s request for reward and recognition will be better received if she says, “We had a good year,” rather than “I had a good year.”
  • Any good negotiator knows that having a better understanding of the other side leads to a superior outcome.
  • Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders, including female leaders.
  • The cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth.
  • The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they do not have any.
  • Stop telling women, get a mentor and you will excel; instead, excel and you will get a mentor.
  • The upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance.
  • Single people have lives too and their life needs should also be taken seriously.
  • Do you have a bias blind spot?  Social scientists say people are often too confident about their own powers of objectivity so they fail to correct for bias.
  • We have a natural bias to want to work (and play) with people who are like us.
  • Women are not just victims of sexism, they can also be perpetrators.
  • One of the conflicts inherent with choice is that we all make different ones.

Sheryl’s suggestions:

  • Set more personal goals for learning new skills.  Ask “how can I improve?”
  • Seek out diverse experiences to help to prepare yourself for leadership.
  • Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweetspot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest.
  • Communication starts with understanding that there is my point of view and someone else’s point of view.  Rarely is there one absolute truth.
  • Remember that feedback, like truth, is not absolute.  Feedback is an opinion grounded in observations and experience which allows us to know what impression we make on others.
  • Humor can be an amazing tool for delivering an honest message in a good-natured way.
  • Planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them.
  • The time to scale back is when a change is needed such as when a child arrives, not before and certainly not years in advance.
  • The single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.
  • Encourage men to lean in to their families.
  • Use the beginning of a relationship to establish the division of labor.
  • Trying to do it all and expecting that it all can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment.
  • Ask yourself if you really need to spend 12 hours a day in the office or are you creating that expectation.
  • Done is better than perfect.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask even if it seems like a long shot.
  • All of us have to understand how stereotypes and biases cloud our beliefs and perpetuate the status quo.

Tell us what you think! Did you read the book and do you want to share your thoughts? Simply reply below and we will post your comments. 

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