Skip to Content

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is the much-discussed book by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of the social network Facebook.  She steps beyond her role at Facebook to make a brave and educated contribution to the gender equality movement.

Personally, I find it extremely encouraging that the discussion about emancipation has restarted and is getting significant publicity. Partially, this is thanks to accomplished women like Sheryl Sandberg who have thrown their hats into the ring by writing books on the topic.

Interestingly, when I ask female friends if they have read Lean In, many of them respond that they don’t think they “need it”. They feel that they have things under control, are already strong, and can make it on their own. If this is true, why are less than 20% of women in leadership positions in Silicon Valley?

A review of "Lean In" by the Facebook COO

Why read this book?

While I would consider myself a strong woman, I got many nuggets out of the book, including tips on how to negotiate salary, how to avoid blind spots as a manager, and why it is so important to lean in as a woman.  But I also enjoyed the tales about the early days of Google and present day Facebook.

This book is, of course, also a PR vehicle for Ms. Sandberg, but she clearly opens up with the intention of giving other women courage and letting them learn from her mistakes. She confesses that she still sometimes feels like an impostor at work, worried that she might fail. Many women can relate to this feeling and might be surprised to hear that somebody at the top is not immune to it. The message here is: push through your fear.

How has the discussion changed?

In the past, discussions about women’s equality often focused on what women did NOT have and how men were holding them back. This made the only obvious solution that men had to change.  In this new wave of women’s lib, the discussion has a stronger focus on what women CAN do to overcome the current inequality; what steps women CAN take to get what they want and deserve, despite existing obstacles.

Societal expectations

Ms. Sandberg has been most faulted by critics for focusing on well-educated women with high ambitions as opposed to women from all walks of life.  As her book fits into the genre of management and career advice, it’s not clear to me why she would be expected to write a book about society at large.

Yet, Ms. Sandberg, herself, preempts this criticism, in the chapter where she talks about the fact that women are expected to act “communal”, i.e. in the interest of all women and society, while the same expectation doesn’t generally exist for men.

She provides an intriguing example of a societal double standard for women from her time as a student at Harvard. When reviewing an HBR case study, half the class was made to believe the key player in the study was male, while half the class was told the protagonist was female.  The result was telling:  when the protagonist of the study was assumed to be male, he was commanded for his behavior. When the students assumed it was a woman, they disliked her and disapproved of many of her actions.

The career penalty

Ms. Sandberg makes the bold statement that the most important career choice for a woman is picking the right husband (or partner). Will the partner share housework, childcare, elderly care, and all other chores of daily life?  Having a job and children is a balancing act at the best of times, but staying at home, Ms. Sandberg says, carries a high career penalty. It can be difficult to get back into the game, and limit a woman’s ability to climb the corporate ladder.

Consequently, Ms. Sandberg advises women who are planning a family NOT to scale back too soon and NOT to tame their ambitions. Her rational is, that if women don’t pursue promotions or better job opportunities while they are getting ready for a life with children, the career penalty will be compounded.  Not only do many women get punished for taking a child break, says Ms. Sandberg, many already compromise their professional future even before they have to take time out, by cutting back prematurely. She recommends going as far as you can before the break.

Different comfort levels

I have discussed this advice with two career women who are planning to have children soon and only one of them agreed. The other, while she did not like her current job and saw no path for advancement, felt that she had “earned her stripes” at the company. Consequently, she would be able to juggle work and being a mom much more easily than if she had to prove herself all over again in a new environment.

Can we pay the price?

In conclusion, I enjoyed the book tremendously and recommend it highly. Yet, something about it does not sit well with me.  While Ms. Sandberg writes extensively about how she and her husband have created a supportive relationship where they share all responsibilities of daily life – and she freely admits that her resources afford her luxuries like housekeeping and child care that others might not have – something is missing.

Is this the message of the book? To be a successful woman in corporate America, you have to give up time with your husband and time to take care of yourself?

Living in Silicon Valley, I see the rat race every day. Many people are asked to prioritize work over their private lives, while research clearly shows that human beings need breaks and diversions to achieve their full potential and creativity.

Ms. Sandberg is very clear in her book that she is not judging individual choices and  believes that every woman needs to decide for herself if she wants to be a stay-at-home mom or a career woman.

I want to be a high-achieving career woman who has a stimulating job that makes an impact and also have enough time to stay healthy and socialize. Some people tell me this is a pipe dream. I don’t want to believe it.  http://www.MarcLesser.net

Marc Lesser writes in Know Yourself, Forget Yourself:

“I am surprised how often we don’t ask the most basic questions – what do we want, what do we have to do to get it, and can we pay the price – in marriages, families and the workplace.”

Can you pay the price? Lean into the conversation now.

To report this post you need to login first.

18 Comments

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.

  1. Graham Robinson

    Hi Natasha,

    thanks for this review of Sheryl Sandbergs’ book. I read it about 6 months ago and then passed it onto my daughter who is now 17 years old. She said “thanks Dad” and probably tossed it under her bed never to be seen again. I hope one day she will find it and read it and take something from it – but then again there are so many more important things to do when you are 17. 😉

    You touch on some of the criticisms of Sheryl and her book – but I question whether all the same criticisms would be made if a male author had written the same words. Of course the whole premise of the book, and the reason I bought it for my daughter, is that it is written by a woman from a womans’ perspective so maybe that whole line of thinking is invalid in this case?

    What is important for me is that Sheryl Sandberg is a highly visible role model for women who aspire to long-term successful careers. The message we get from the researchers is that women – especially young women in their mid-teens, struggle to find suitable role models they can relate to and aspire to.

    There are so few female corporate leaders that the emerging generation of young women can see, relate to and aspire to become. Sheryl Sandberg is one that has “put herself out there” by writing this book and I for one applaud her and hope she continues to share her perspectives and insights at every opportunity, inspires and encourages others to do the same, and in turn inspires the next generation of leaders.

    And I applaud you for doing the same and encourage you to keep it up too. 😏

    Cheers

    Graham Robbo

    (0) 
    1. Natascha Thomson Post author

      Graham:

      what an enlightened father you are! Thank you for raising your daughter that way. You are acting “communal” by doing it :-).

      Appreciate all your encouragement and information you provide above, and agree that the book would have been reviewed differently if written by a male. My point exactly, that we don’t have to agree with all she says, but she is brave enough to fuel the conversation on gender equality with a valuable and personal contribution.

      Best,

      Natascha

      (0) 
  2. Tammy Powlas

    Nice blog and great comments from Graham

    I have not read the book

    I will say that growing up I had great role models in a mother who worked and a sister-in-law who worked professionally.

    My dad wouldn’t tolerate any excuse for failure from me which was good.

    My oldest brother also was a role model as he worked his way through college.

    As a result I always felt confident in my abilities in the work for force and never looked at things as a man versus woman issue.

    I am not sure we should always look for role models like Sheryl Sandberg but closer to home.

    My 2 cents

    (0) 
    1. Natascha Thomson Post author

      Tammy:

      sounds like you grew up with some great role models! Unfortunately, not all of us have them (at home) or close by.

      I hear this frequently that women are looking for female mentors but as there are so few in leadership roles, it’s hard to find them. Plus, if you are a minority, do you want tips from the people in power who can pull you up or the ones who are struggling to keep their place?

      I think Sheryl Sandberg has the fame to get all of us talking about this topic, and that is a win. But you are right, change probably happens most in our own “smaller” world.

      Best,

      Natascha

      (0) 
  3. Sylvia Santelli

    Hello Natasha,

    I didn’t read it, and your right, I wasn’t really planning on it. Of course I support the message but maybe it feels like one more thing on my to do list because I (think)  understand the message without casting judgement, as women tend to do. This might be the most important part.

    Agree with Graham Robinson ‘s comments too.

    On a related note, when Sheryl’s book was released I saw a cover from Bloomberg Businessweek titled “Lean Out” suggesting that perhaps men want to take a step back in an effort to find balance with family and life.  I didn’t read that either, but I thought it was really ironic. The cover alone has given me a lot to think about when it comes to balance in my family.

    Great food for thought Natascha Thomson

    Perhaps the message is to feel like one has the power to be in control and choose your destiny and legacy.

    (0) 
    1. Natascha Thomson Post author

      Sylvia:

      I think us having this discussion right now is a positive outcome of Sheryl Sandberg’s book.

      Unfortunately, just being aware of the problems does not necessarily make it easier to change things. It’s good to have the intend, but this is a problem that – in my view – needs legislation to move the needle. Like the state vote in California last week that more women need to be on boards; that is the right direction for me.

      As we are just as qualified as men, that is obviously not good enough for the time being.

      My 2 cents,

      Natascha

      (0) 
  4. Tom Cenens

    Hi Natascha

    Great post. I like the first set of comments posted here as well.

    I will definitely encourage my daughter to not hold back on any matter in life because of predefined social expectations.

    I want to be a high-achieving career woman who has a stimulating job that makes an impact and also have enough time to stay healthy and socialize. “

    I think you are already doing this to be honest and I don’t believe it will restrict you in what you can accomplish. I love how you lean in and influence this topic.

    Now I have to go and add a couple of books to my “to buy” list.

    Best regards

    Tom

    (0) 
    1. Natascha Thomson Post author

      Tom:

      thanks for your support and kind words.

      Frankly, when I was not running my own business, I felt the glass ceiling. It was not pleasant. This is why many women opt out and try to take control.

      I think it’s a complex problem that starts with awareness but we have to act to make changes. Why do women still earn less than men in many jobs, doing the same work? How can we as a society be ok with that? What are we doing about it?

      Luckily, with men like you and Graham, I see change coming!

      Natashca

      (0) 
  5. Gretchen Lindquist

    Natascha,

    I have not read the book yet either.  Perhaps reviews and commentary I’ve read have left me with an inaccurate impression, but I got the sense that the underlying assumption that success was only defined as an executive-level career. Such an assumption is quite a turnoff to me, as that is not my definition of success at all. Now that I read your comments about other interesting and helpful nuggets, perhaps I will pick up a copy and approach it with a more open mind.

    Thanks for a very insightful post.

    Gretchen

    (0) 
  6. Moya Watson

    This is a great read on the book – thanks for putting it together and sharing it Natascha. 

    > Interestingly, when I ask female friends if they have read Lean In, many of them respond that they don’t think they “need it”.

    I wonder how many women — myself included — also tire of being ‘the underdogs’ and ‘the victims’ and players in a ‘male-dominated field.’  This is the sort of thing I was trying to communicate to you once when I said we just need to make those stereotypes ‘irrelevant’ to our lives.  Of course they are not, but often I just think my reality doesn’t match the rest.

    On the other hand, I also haven’t read the book.  At the end of the day I’m often so exhausted working and raising my kid that I can’t finish a page without falling asleep 🙁

    (0) 
    1. Natascha Thomson Post author

      Moya:

      what a great perspective.

      That is how I see it, work is work and not just fun; so I want equal pay and opportunity to have fun :-).

      And, this is what I was trying to say, that the discussion has become more positive in my view, on what we can do to change things vs. just complaining. But we need help from those  currently “running the place”.

      I try to make differences irrelevant but I don’t think I always can :-(.

      Best,

      Natascha

      (0) 
  7. Tom Van Doorslaer

    You know Natascha, you just made me think about something.

    You say that there’s only about 20% of women in a leadership position in sillicon valley.

    But what is their quality ratio?

    I don’t have any figures to back any of what follows up. It’s just some naively positive thinking of mine.

    Because it’s so much harder for women to climb up to the highest spots on the ladders, I think that only the very best female leaders rise up. so I like to believe that of those 20% female leaders, nearly all, are great leaders.

    Whilst in that 80% of male leaders, there are a lot of barking dogs with little value. Amongst these 80%, you’ll frequently see the same psychological profile as well. There’s a lot of power-bosses there, and very few creative, collaborative, caring minds.

    It’s not only women, having a hard time climbing up. Men and women with certain profiles, have an equally hard time travelling up. Not to say that there isn’t inequality, because there is, but I’d rather see a debate about the skills and qualities needed for leadership, regardless of gender. (which should solve two issues at once)

    I’d rather go for quality than quantity.

    (0) 
    1. Natascha Thomson Post author

      Tom:

      I fully agree that quality matters. But there is a pool of qualified women out there to draw from.

      If it is true, as you state, that a large % of men in leadership positions are “barking dogs with little value”, why would that mean that only women who are better than men should rise up? If incompetent men can rise up, make more money and get power, why do women have to be competent to do it?

      As a devil’s advocate, I’d say, let all of us have a piece of that pie. Income equality is one of the worst facets of being a women in America and as more women are single mothers, it’s important to create economic equality. Yes, this is about opportunity as much as about MONEY.

      How can you say that

      Men and women with certain profiles, have an equally hard time travelling up.

      when that is statistically proven not to be correct? Men HAVE traveled up a lot more than women, at least 80% more often; sometimes 100% more often.

      Of the best known companies in California—Apple, Google, Intel, Cisco, Visa, eBay, DIRECTV, Yahoo!, and PG&E—all had no women among their highest-paid executives at fiscal year-end.


      Frankly, I used to be against quotas but now am in favor or them, as they have worked well in countries like Norway. It reminds me of the days of segregation in the USA, some people just need pressure to do the right thing. In the defense of men, people tend to hire people they know well and can relate to, so hiring other men is often easier, but it does not make it ok. Awareness has to  maybe be “forced”.

      “When openings occur, men tend to bring forward other men they know from the golf course or from their university, and to not consider women they may not know personally,” Berkhemer-Credaire said.”

      Here some recent studies on the topic:

      A 2012 Credit Suisse Research Institute report found that of 2,360 companies worldwide, those with women directors averaged 14 percent net income growth over the preceding six years, compared to 10 percent growth for those with all-male boards.

      Key Findings of 2012-2013 Study by UC Davis on Women Business Leaders:

      • There is only one woman for every nine men among directors and highest-paid executives.
      • Only 13 of the 400 largest companies have a woman CEO.
      • No company has an all-female (nor gender-balanced) board and management team.
      • Almost half (44.8 percent) of California’s companies have no women directors;
        34 percent have only one woman director.
      • Among counties with at least 20 companies, San Francisco County has the greatest percentage of women directors (15.5 percent) and Orange County has the least (7.7 percent). Alameda County has the most highest-paid women executives in the study, with 14.4 percent highest-paid women executives working there.
      • By industry — firms in the semiconductor and software industries and those located in the Silicon Valley tended to include fewer women on the board and in highest-paid executive positions. Firms in the consumer goods sector had the highest average percentage of women directors and highest-paid executives.
      • Of the best known companies in California—Apple, Google, Intel, Cisco, Visa, eBay, DIRECTV, Yahoo!, and PG&E—all had no women among their highest-paid executives at fiscal year-end.
      • The 128 Silicon Valley (Santa Clara county) companies, which represent $1.2 trillion, or nearly half the shareholder value of the companies on the list, again showed the worst record for percentage of women executives. Only 6.6 percent of their highest-paid executives are women, and only 8.4 percent of Silicon Valley board members in our study are women.

      By the way, that 20% number I quote is based on information I have learned when I was in groups that promoted women in leadership at Silicon Valley companies, plus is an attempt for a fair average of all the numbers above :-). Unfortunately, in the technology sector, this number is overall even lower with only about 5.5% of women in leadership. So, 20% might be on the high end.

      Women still hold fewer than one in 10 of the highest-paid executive positions and board seats at the top public firms in California—and over the past eight years there has been no measurable, significant progress in the representation of women in the top decision-making posts of these California 400.

      From my personal experience, I have seen few women move up to VP positions and even less who ended up staying. Most, funny enough, ended up leaving the politics of large Silicon Valley corporations and ended up becoming CMOs of smaller start ups. Because they are less qualified?

      Thanks for your contribution to this discussion. I respect your view and think it is an interesting perspective. Albeit, one I can’t agree with 🙂 .

      Best,

      Natascha

      PS: The California State Senate on Monday passed a resolution urging companies to add women to their boards of directors

      Women held 10.5 percent of board seats at the state’s 400 largest companies in 2012, according to UCD’s eighth-annual study on California women business leaders, released last December. That was up from 8.8 percent in 2006.

      (0) 
      1. Tom Van Doorslaer

        Natascha, I think you misinterpret my words a bit, or I was too vague.

        The point that I’m trying to convey, is that equal opportunities is not about men vs women. It’s a lot broader than that.

        There’s race discrimination, gender discrimination, sexual preference discrimination, discrimination based on how we collaborate with others, discrimination on the shoes we wear,…. and the list goes on

        What I’m saying is that there’s a typical profile working it’s way up the ladder, and if you don’t fit the profile, you hit that glass ceiling.

        I don’t think we have different opinions. I don’t think we disagree.

        We simply focus on a different aspect of the issue.

        (0) 
        1. Natascha Thomson Post author

          Tom:

          I see your point, but this discussion is focused on gender equality. And, while men and women might share similar struggles in moving up the corporate ladder, women obviously face more struggles, as the numbers show.

          As men dominate the leadership roles, how can you say they hit the same glass ceiling as women? How do you back this up?

          The typical profile working up the ladder, statistically, is currently male vs. female. Or how do you describe the typical profile? Why do men fit it more than women?

          I read in Barbara Annis’ book on gender differences that most corporations are modeled on a military command structure. For women, this does not work as well as for men, she says. Here’s another issue that makes moving up easier for males.

          Interested in hearing your rebuttal :-).

          Warm regards,

          Natascha

          (0) 

Leave a Reply