Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, examines a decline in females achieving leadership positions, the root causes of this and potential solutions. I was greatly affected by Sandberg’s TED talk titled ‘Why we have too few women leaders’, and her experience as COO of Facebook and as a former VP at Google affords the author much credibility. I was interested to read her take and hear her solutions in the hope it would enable me to pursue leadership roles in future.
Sandberg largely attributes the lack of female leaders to the struggle of women choosing between, rather than balancing, professional success and personal fulfilment. Considering our society is increasingly one of equal opportunities it is shocking that in 2017 the percentage of Fortune 500 female CEOs fell by over 12% (Cox, 2017). Why do so few women rise to CEO positions? Sandberg considers women leaving the workforce as the root cause, and highlights three key messages to women: sit at the table, make your partner a real partner and don’t leave before you leave, which I will discuss fully.
The book’s major theme of sitting at the table was inspired by Sandberg’s experience of having to prompt senior female employees to sit at a conference table, rather than hidden at the sides of the room. The distinction she makes is that opting out is not just due to a lack of opportunity, but underlying self-doubt preventing women from ‘leaning in’ and being heard. Sandberg’s description of Imposter Syndrome was particularly relatable. Despite achieving highly, an underlying sense of feeling unskilled can obscure and misrepresent personal achievements. Sandberg admits still occasionally feeling like a fraud, and being spoken over and discounted, while the men around her are not, revealing that self-doubt is not the only issue. Her claim “I have learned to sit at the table” (Sandberg, 2013, p.38) highlights this behaviour can be learnt rather than being innate, helping her experiences resonate with the reader as we can learn to behave in ways which boost our progression, rather than expecting to be confident enough from the very start.
Underestimating oneself is only part of the problem. Another surprisingly prominent issue is the relationship between success and likeability, the importance of which I certainly underestimated. Sandberg notes a positive correlation between success and likeability for men, yet an inverse correlation for women. The Harvard Business School study into entrepreneur Heidi Roizen illustrates this point succinctly. The study describes Roizen’s rise to success as a venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality… and vast personal and professional network” (Sandberg, 2013, p.39). The students were split equally; half were given Heidi’s story to read, the other half the same story with one difference – Heidi had been changed to Howard. The data showed that despite the two being considered equally competent, Howard appeared likeable while Heidi appeared egotistical. This demonstrates women are discriminated against for not adhering to stereotypes. While few are likely to admit this, it certainly impacts female professional progression.
Sandberg’s other theme, ‘make your partner a real partner’ states that for women to remain in the workforce more equal domestic labour distribution is required. This continues to be an issue, with women on average being responsible for twice as much, perpetuating the failure to flourish in both professional and personal life.
Sheryl’s maxim ‘don’t leave before you leave’ centres upon her experience of female colleagues disengaging months, even years, before the arrival of a child. Not actively seeking progression during this period their role is likely to create an increasingly mundane job to return to and she cites this advice as being effective for a former colleague who would have otherwise rejected a job at Google.
Though Sandberg’s themes are sound, she overlooks some issues. For example, learning to sit at the table is one part of the problem, getting to ‘the table’ in the first place is also important. It requires early career progression and opportunities for women which she fails to expand upon. Also, readers may struggle with her emphasis of the correlation between likeability and success, given Sandberg maintains a likeable persona throughout the book despite her success in male-dominated Silicon Valley. However, her admission of hiding past accomplishments out of fear substantiates the difficulty in maintaining both competence and likeability.
Sandberg’s instruction to make your partner a real partner presupposes the existence of a partner and making this a requirement for females achieving leadership roles is potentially alienating. Her advice to ‘lean in’ prior to maternity leave ignores single parents for whom the increased responsibilities could overwhelm rather than promote success. Therefore, the audience of this book is quite specific, and does not speak as well to women entering the workforce, my own motivation in selecting the book.
Though the female audience with the capacity to fully follow Sandberg’s advice may be narrow, Sandberg’s drive and ability to lean is unquestionable. However, an intrinsic flaw of the book is its emphasis on women’s responsibility to ‘lean in’, rather than businesses being more accommodating. Sandburg’s opening begins with her having to ask for pregnancy parking at Google, an idea which hadn’t been previously considered. Further examples of how Sandburg shifted the focus from changing women to businesses would be beneficial.
These criticisms, however, do not undermine Sandberg’s insight. For example, “done is better than perfect” (Sandberg, 2013, p.126) emphasises that perfectionism is not required for success, making progression appear attainable. Her claim “It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder” (Sandberg, 2013, p.52) resonates well for those in early stages of their career, where taking advantage of a range of opportunities, rather than progressing through a company’s hierarchy, is a more realistic prospect in today’s job market. Sandberg shares Eric Schmidt’s advice of fast growth being a key indicator, advice which led to her acceptance of roles at Google and Facebook. This insight provides readers with another factor to consider in future employment opportunities.
To conclude, I think Sandberg achieves her aim of explaining the lack of female leaders, though I continue to feel as though her solutions concentrate too heavily on personal development, rather than an interdependence in development between businesses and individuals to combat this leadership gap. Her anecdotes provide a humorous and personal tone, highlighting her failings and resonated strongly making me realise self-doubt is commonplace rather than a personal setback. Even though this book is targeted at a slightly older audience it empowered me to want to seek success and so ‘lean in’ and take advantage of opportunities regardless of existing stereotypes and false self-doubt.
The views in this article represent those of the author. This article is part of the ‘Making Our Work Real’ series.