Book Review: Lean In

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

I first heard about Sheryl Sandberg on the radio on a Sunday afternoon. She had just made headlines with her CBS interview where she discussed her ideas on why there weren’t more women at the executive level. I was mesmerized immediately. As soon as I got home I watched the interview that was being discussed on the radio. (You can watch the interview here.) Read the comments below the video, and you’ll see she has caused quite a stir.

Immediately I was hooked. I had never heard a woman talk about the issues I had faced all of my life. Yes, I HAVE been called bossy! Yes, I HAVE had conflicts at work with other women because of my success! I always took these things as personal attacks, never thinking that, maybe, the reason was because my behavior did not line up with society’s expectations.

I know that other people have found her book to be boring because she didn’t write it like a gossip column. This isn’t an autobiography of how Sheryl Sandberg became COO of Facebook. Even though she does speak about her personal experiences throughout the book, it’s only to bring some real-life examples that support her evidence-based points. The book does read a lot like a research paper, but as a nerd, I love that. I’m not interested in a book about unsubstantiated opinions. She cites studies that prove her point. I read the Kindle edition so I was able to click into the footnotes to read about the study she cited in the text. Again, the nerd in me was very pleased.

It’s been more than a month since I have finished the book, and there are two chapters I’ve continued to think about since then:

Success and Likability (Chapter 3)

Sandberg writes about a 2003 Columbia Business School study where two professors ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They assigned a case study to their students about an entrepreneur, Heidi, who became a successful venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality… and vast personal and professional network”. The professors assigned the case study to their students but made one change: half of the students were assigned Heidi’s story and the other half of students were given the same story but with the name changed to “Howard”. Here’s what Sandberg writes in her book about the results of the Heidi/Howard study:

The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, which made sense since “their” accomplishments were completely identical. Yet while students respected both Heidi and Howard, Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you want want to hire or work for.” The same data with a single difference – gender – created vastly different impressions.

This experiment supports what research has already clearly shown: success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less…

This is just one example of the research in Sandberg’s book. It’s relatable yet surprising. To me, that study is disappointing because gender stereotypes are so engrained into our brains that most of us don’t even notice we are guilty of perpetuating them. I know that is something that I will try to be more mindful of in my own life.

Don’t Leave Before You Leave (Chapter 7)

I think the best way to describe this chapter would be to include another quote from her book:

From an early age, girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they will make between professional and personal goals. When asked to choose between marriage and career, female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates. And this concern can start even younger. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, related the story of a five-year-old girl who came home distraught from her after-school program and told her mother that both she and the boy she had a crush on wanted to be astronauts. When her mother asked why that was a problem, the little girl replied, “When we go into space together, who will watch our kids?” At five, she thought the most challenging aspect of space travel would be dependable child care.

I will admit that even I, who some people consider to be independent and ambitious, battle with these thoughts a lot. Because I am now in my late 20’s, I am very aware of my biological clock ticking. The more I think about it, the more I consider compromising my own goals. For example, I want to get my MBA, but when I think about the actual timeline of how the events will play out, thoughts of doubt begin to sink in. Then I think about the positives – boost in career status, increased earning potential, leadership opportunities – and I shake down those doubts.

What Sandberg describes in this chapter are the opportunities women turn down for motherhood before they are mothers, pregnant, or even married. I do agree with her point. I don’t think that women should compromise their goals for their children who have not even been conceived! The more we accomplish before motherhood, the more money we can make, and the more opportunities we can give our future children. And if we postpone our aspirations until after we are mothers, I think it’s even harder to break through barriers. Get to a good place before starting a family, and you will have more opportunities to make your career be flexible to fit your life and still make a healthy living.

Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders Ted Talks December 2010 Lecture

I recommend this book to men and women. I think there are a lot of valid points and everybody can learn something from her book. Whether you agree with her or not, kudos to Sheryl Sandberg for bringing this conversation back. And believe me, it’s a very heated conversation.

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