How to Have It All

Lean in: women, work and the will to lead — Sheryl Sandberg

Lean in: women, work and the will to lead — Sheryl Sandberg

In the immediate wake of the publication of her book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” Sheryl Sandberg set off a firestorm of debate. Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook and one of her generation’s most vocal and visible leaders, makes a stirring case that the world needs far more women leaders and it is up to women themselves to “lean in” and take a seat at the table. Acknowledging all the obvious factors that have kept the glass ceiling firmly in place, Sandberg argues that women are as much if not more to blame for allowing the status quo to hold.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes. “We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet. Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions.”

On the face of it, Sandberg, 43, is merely echoing the message that emerged in the feminist and equal rights movements of the 1970’s. It is, after all, remarkable that we must still discuss equal pay for women in 2013! Or that of the 195 independent countries in the world, only 17 are led by women. Or that despite the gains women have made at America’s universities and workplaces, women at the top of Fortune 500 corporations number just 21. Or that women hold 14 percent of executive officer positions, 17 percent of board seats and constitute just 18 percent of Congress.

Given that Sandberg is a poster child for successful young business leaders and will undoubtedly become a CEO sooner than later, one might expect her polemic to be embraced by vocal and passionate supporters. Yet it seems the opposite has happened. Reaction to “Lean In” ranged from tepid applause to outright hostility. And that was from women.

It is not only easy but disingenuous, her critics say, for an executive with net worth listed at $1.6 billion to suggest that women struggling to earn a paycheck and find time to care for children, do housework and shop for groceries be put under pressure to seek leadership roles as well. Someone with her resources – money, influence, child care support, a rich and accomplished husband and partner – can certainly lean in and stretch the envelope. But for the vast majority of women, Sandberg’s challenge is out of touch with reality.

In fact, the negative blowback feels like yet another smokescreen for drawing attention away from this crucial issue. Sandberg acknowledges her good fortune throughout the book and makes it abundantly clear that most working women face a host of untenable challenges and choices. That said, does her argument lack merit? Hardly. And Sandberg is perfectly positioned to sound this call. The obvious question ought to be: If not for women like Sandberg, who will take up the gauntlet in this difficult fight?

“Lean In” shines a harsh light on a troubling trend. In comparison to their male counterparts, Sandberg points out, highly trained women are scaling back and dropping out of the work force in high numbers. “In turn, these diverging percentages teach institutions and mentors to invest more in men, who are statistically more likely to stay,” she writes.

Narrating anecdotes from her own career, Sandberg shares her feelings of inadequacy and despair. Growing up, while her talented younger brother oozed with self-confidence, Sandberg struggled with her own demons.

“For women, feeling like a fraud is a symptom of a greater problem,” she writes. “We consistently undermine ourselves. Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is.”

Within this short but economical treatise are useful bits of advice for women seeking leadership positions:

When negotiating for a higher post, don’t take the first offer. When Sandberg was being recruited by Mark Zuckerberg, she was so thrilled at the chance to work at Facebook that she was ready to accept whatever Zuckerberg offered. Her husband and brother-in-law advised her strongly not to accept a first offer. A man wouldn’t, they told her. Needless to say, her counter to Zuckerberg resulted in a much sweeter deal.

Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder. Ladders are limiting. Corporate careers are rarely a strictly vertical climb. A jungle gym offers many ways to get to the top, and the model benefits everyone, but especially women starting careers.

The need to be liked by everyone, a desire shared by so many women, has to be harnessed and put away. As Zuckerberg told Sandberg six months after she joined Facebook, “When you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.”

Women need to take more career risks. “The cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth,” she states.

Due to the fear of innuendo and gossip, junior-level women tend to avoid one-on-one contact with senior-level men. Personal connections, however, can lead to better assignments and promotions, so it needs to be O.K. for men and women to spend informal time together. “This evasiveness must end,” Sandberg writes.

Don’t leave before you leave. “Women rarely make one big decision to leave the work force,” Sandberg says. “Instead they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family. Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that they leave before they leave. What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance.”

Sandberg addresses much of her apprehension toward talented young women on the way up. But she is not letting anyone off the hook. “If society truly valued the work of caring for children, companies and institutions would find ways to reduce these steep penalties and help parents combine career and family responsibilities,” she declares.

Of course, Sandberg can do little to forestall the critics who claim, “This is easy for you to say.” She doesn’t help her own cause by including an acknowledgments section that identifies what appears to be a small army of writers, researchers, editors and advisers who helped create this book. Readers might come away with the impression that Sandberg did little more than provide the transcript of her 2010 TED Talk in which she laid out her opinions.

But hey, there is more than one way to mount a crusade. And regardless of her means, the ends are justified. As she says, “I made this my thing because we need to disrupt the status quo. Staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations of women who entered corporate America could do; in some cases it might still be the safest path. But this strategy is not paying off for women as a group. Instead, we need to speak out, identify the barriers that are holding women back and find solutions.”

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