Julia’s Book Club: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

by julia.hanigsberg | October 15th, 2013

This is one of those books that has been as much talked about as read. And not everyone who has done the talking has bothered to do the reading first!

Sheryl and Me

I’ll say off the top that I like this book. I find Sandberg authentic and likeable in it. And many of the observations and much of the advice she gives resonates with me. Admittedly, it doesn’t hurt that she and I are alike in probably more ways that we are different. We are both Jewish women in our 40s. Both highly educated from great schools. Both married. Both mothers. Both feminists and proud to say it. Both committed to leadership and success in our chosen fields. (There are a couple of significant differences too not the least of which are her fabulous wealth, beauty and fame, her close friendships with some of the world’s most powerful and influential people, but my envy is not what this blog is about!).

So while I admit that the anecdotes for Sandberg’s life may resonate with me more than they might with someone with a dramatically different life course, another reason I like the book is that it is courageous. And to understand it’s courage you really have to read it: from cover to cover and not just the articles about the book.

Lean In: The Argument

What’s the book about? The argument in the book is that

  • there are too few women in leadership (business, government, politics, professions),
  • the world would be a more equitable place if leadership were evenly shared among women and men
  • women are equally qualified to lead

Sandberg says that there are two sets of impediments to achieving equal representation of women in leadership:

(1) systemic/public policy issues (eg sexism, sexual harassment, policies that don’t support childcare responsibilities, the fact that research demonstrates that women typically have to prove themselves more to get the same opportunities as men): these are the things we typically talk about;

(2) ways in which women hold themselves back: this is the controversial and brave part because this is what we don’t talk about.

Sandberg’s call to action for women: Lean In to your careers.

The Criticism

Some of the reviews of Lean In (particularly some vicious ones before it was published) said that the book lays the blame for women’s lack of equality at their own feet (“blame the victim”). Many of these reviews also complained that Sandberg was privileged by class and education and therefore couldn’t speak to the real challenges that women face.

Reality: she’s a bit too pretty and too rich and too successful and boy are we bad at supporting women who fit that profile. If you want another example take a look at some of the things people have written about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.

Structural issues vs individual achievement and success (is this too “American”?)

Sandberg doesn’t ignore systemic issues that hold women back. Her argument is that women are held back by both phenomena: she acknowledges the catch-22 of which do you address first but refuses to choose and says you need to do both.  Those internal struggles and obstacles women experience in Sandberg’s experience are infrequently discussed and that’s why they are the focus of her book.

Sandberg neither lets institutions off the hook nor does she blame women. She doesn’t judge the choices women make and doesn’t suggest there aren’t life circumstances outside of women’s control that may lead to them putting career second, ie “leaning back.”

She also is aware and acknowledges that the vast majority of women in the world are working to to make ends meet; and on the other end of the spectrum that some women don’t work for money – don’t seek power and monetary reward nor leadership and she doesn’t ignore or judges those realities and choices.

Don’t Leave Before you Leave

Cultural expectations start young that family and “work life balance” will be a constraint/problem/sacrifice for women. There is a great example from a Peggy Orenstein book that Sandberg shares in which a 5 year old girl and her kindergarten “boyfriend” both want to be astronauts. The little girl comes home and tells her mom she doesn’t know it will work because who will take care of their kids when they are in space. Sandberg wryly notes that this little girl thought the biggest constraint to her space travel was finding adequate childcare! Boys and men aren’t similarly culturally conditioned.

I can’t tell you how many times law students or young lawyers have sought my advice on how to balance law practice and family. These are women who don’t have kids yet and in many cases don’t have a serious relationship but are already feeling anxious about entering a job that may some day pose a problem for their hypothetical offspring. Some of my best jobs were when I was pregnant or with tiny kids at home.

My advice is generally that early in your career is the time to put pedal to the metal. You don’t have to look for work-life issues, they’ll find you. In fact, some day they’ll smash you in the face! You’ll have a sick toddler or an elderly aunt with Alzheimer’s, a dependent sibling with a disability or a partner who suffers an illness or accident. Life throws it all at us.

Sandberg similarly offers the advice that the months and years leading to having children are the times to lean in not lean back. Women can’t let themselves get behind in salary, position, power early on in their careers and expect it not to catch up with them in salary, career engagement, etc later.

The Take Away

If you want to lead, Sandberg’s take away is keep your foot on the gas pedal until you need to take it off and don’t let anyone tell you that you have to slow down when you don’t want to.     Lean In.

Postscript: I want to thank Laleh Moshiri of the Toronto law firm Borden Ladner Gervais for giving me the opportunity to facilitate a professional development session at the firm on the book Lean In. Preparing for and participating in that panel contributed to my thoughts for this blog.

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