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

October 27, 2013

Lean In

I guess this post should start with a small disclaimer. This was not the last book that I read, nor was it the book that I read immediately after the book I wrote about in my last post (Shogun, which you should also read). But I wanted to write about this book first as I come out of my writing break because it’s the one that sticks out really clearly in my mind, and it’s one that should be talked about. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg has been getting lots of attention in the media and on the internet, and many people now considering the dynamics in the workplace are giving it a lot of lip service. The praise this book has been given isn’t undeserved, but it can be a little bit over the top.

If you’re not familiar with this book already, I’ll just describe it briefly. Sandberg writes about the particular challenges women face as they climb the corporate ladder and the types of obstacles they must overcome. She backs up most of the statements she makes with facts, scientific studies, and often amusing personal anecdotes. Because of all these aspects I found it to be a fun and interesting read. But it didn’t change my world or make me jump up in disbelief or rage. These more powerful reactions seem to be seizing some percent of readers, and this book is getting an interesting, albeit unwarranted, reputation. Let me explain.

Many of the studies and stories that Sandberg presents in this book are about how women that she has seen in the corporate world, including herself, are held back and their paths to growth and success are stunted compared to their male peers. She herself has experienced some of this, although she obviously overcame it very well as she is now COO of Facebook after leaving a very impressive job at Google. She explains throughout the book how the institutional structure of the corporate world as well as women themselves work to hold back promising women who aim for the top.

She hits on things like workplace attire – how the choice of dress is naturally easier for men, and how women sometimes need to dress more powerfully to command respect at the office – as well as the psychology of unconscious (and sometimes conscious bias). She writes about women entering a system where they feel as if they have no right to demand more for themselves and as such often don’t demand “a place at the table” when conducting business in a group. Naturally this also leads to things like “the impostor syndrome”, a feeling that can afflict both men and women, but tends to affect women’s careers more severely. She devotes several chapters to these and other inequalities offering up examples of many times when she herself felt marginalized or too intimidated to fight for herself.

Sandberg makes it clear that she was not alone responsible for her rise to COO. She fully acknowledges the many mentors, friends, bosses, and colleagues (most of them men, actually) who supported her, pushed her forward, and gave her courage. I like this the most about her book. It becomes clear in reading that she holds no hostile feelings to the corporate environment, she simply wants to educate other women and men about the difficulties that are out there, and how having a group of strong and helpful people around you can make all the difference.

My favorite chapter is probably the one titled “Are you my mentor?”. As a scientist, I would never be where I am today without the interactions I have had with several people who I consider to be mentors. But the thing about having a mentor, is that it just happens; you can’t force the connection and make someone advise you. Everyone needs a mentor at some point in their career, but many women in business can’t break in for this very reason. They have difficulty finding a mentor, and in some cases go about cultivating such a relationship in the wrong way. Sandberg confesses that many women have come to her and asked her to be their mentor, which she admits can put her off from taking the task. Her description of what it means to be a mentor, and the benefits that come to both participants in the process was really wonderful, and I’d encourage reading the book for that chapter alone.

One thing that I found to be missing, from that chapter as well as the book as a whole, was solutions. Such a wide and diverse problem as gender imbalances in the workplace doesn’t always come with a simple answer, but I was hoping to see a heftier attempt at problem solving. Sandberg ultimately offers an important solution: education and information. She hopes that as men and women inform themselves about the biases present in everyday corporate America that they will begin to act differently, support their colleagues and partners more fully, and make the workplace a friendlier place. This is very nice, and I think this book as a stand alone is in a position to help greatly in achieving this goal, but I suppose I was hoping for a bit more.

Sandberg has also received a fair amount of criticism for the perspective from which she writes. As an extremely successful woman with money for around the clock childcare, a stable income, and a comfortable living situation, she writes to the upper middle class woman already embedded in the corporate structure. I don’t think this is a criminal offense. It is simply how she chose to write her book. The psychology research summarized in this book makes it informative to anyone, but the strategies for success are narrowly focused. Ultimately it was interesting and touching. I could tell that she invested much of herself in the creation of this book, and that made it that much better.

Watch Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk about this subject here.

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From → Non-Fiction

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