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Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

April 25, 2013

For the last few nights, I had been skipping my social commitments and concentrating all of my attention on a book – Lean in by Sheryl Sandberg. Several times while reading this book I was vigorously nodding my head and exclaiming ‘Oh Yeah, so true’; several other times, it made me think and reflect upon all the choices I had made and in more ways than one, this book has taught me to lean in and “sit at the table”.


Sheryl Sandberg, COO of the Facebook notes that even thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. Through a series of anecdotes, research findings and her own experience in the corporate world, she analyses the reasons for his disparity and discusses how we can bridge this gap.

The Leadership Ambition Gap

Sheryl discusses the fact that inspite of having several intelligent and smart women graduating out of the top universities, how is it possible that many women drop out of the workforce and most importantly, how do we have so few women in the senior managerial positions? Many a time, I have wondered about the limited representation of women in the consulting company I work for; as you go up the ladder.

Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional-or worse, sometimes even a negative-for women. “She is very ambitious” is not a compliment in any culture. And for all the progress, there is still societal pressure for women to keep an eye on marriage from a young age. I can totally relate to this. No matter how many degrees a woman earns or how good a job she holds, she is never considered successful until she has a husband to boot.

Sheryl asks “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter. At Facebook, the people are encouraged to take risks. The posters all over the office reads “Fortune favors the bold”, “Proceed and be bold”, etc. So keep away your fears and proceed ahead fearlessly.

Sit at the table

In her senior year of college, Sheryl was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and in the ceremony for women the keynote speaker gave a talk called “Feeling like a fraud”. She explained that many people, especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserved and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Women feel that it is only a matter of time until they found out for who they really are – impostors with limited skills and abilities. For women, feeling like a fraud is a symptom of a greater problem, we consistenly underestimate ourselves. It is not just women who are tough on themselves. Colleagues and the media are quick to credit external factors for a woman’s achievements. “Lucky to be at the right place”/”Had powerful mentors along the way” were few of things attributed to Sheryl when Facebook went public the first time.

Sherly mentions that even research backs up the idea of “Fake it till you feel it” strategy. In order to continue to grow and challenge yourself, you have to believe in your own abilities. And learn to sit at the table, not at a corner of the conference room where you can be easily ignored.

Success and Likeability

This is a section I enjoyed reading a lot. As and when a woman becomes more successful, her ‘likeability’ is reduced nearly to a naught. I have noticed many people commenting about  women in higher positions with remarks like “She is such a b*t*h” or “She is very aggressive and nobody likes her”. Many a time, the reasons attributed to these kind of comments sound totally lame to me and the same reasons would have been totally acceptable had a male boss behaved in the same way. One of the things Mark Zuckerberg(her immediate supervisor and founder of Facebook) told Sheryl in her first formal review at Facebook was that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making progress. Can he be any more right?

Seek and Speak Your Truth

Authentic communication is not always easy, but it is the basis for successful relationships at home and real effectiveness at work. Yet people constantly back away from honesty to protect themselves and others; for the fear of being judged or marginalized. Sheryl mentions that effective communication where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest is the way to go. When you give honest feedback and talk openly about what is holding you back, you are paving the way for improvement.

Sheryl also mentions that most women believe that it is not a good idea to cry at work. She recalls an incident when she learned that someone had said something about her that was not just false, but cruel. She started telling Mark Zuckerberg about it and, despite her best efforts, started to cry. Mark consoled her that the accusation is so untrue and asked her “Do you want a hug?”. She says that it was a breakthrough moment for them. She felt closer to him than ever before. She expressed her feelings and Mark responded with compassion. Now I am not saying that each one of our bosses will react the same way if we happen to cry infront of them. What brought a huge smile to my face was the fact that even Sheryl had a meltdown in her office; which made a small emotional moment that happened with me in the office look so much more salvageable. I have recounted this particular story to many of my girlfriends in the last couple of days so that they will feel better about similar incidents that occurred in their own worklife. My respect for Sheryl Sandberg grew several notches just because she was brave enough to speak out about this.

Don’t leave before you leave

This is my favourite section in the entire book because I could relate so much to this. Working on a demanding job with lots of travel and constant change of locations means people find it so easy to give me “free” advice. “How long will you go on like this”, “You will have to settle down one day”, “Quit this job so that you can start thinking about a family” or “You can’t stay away from your husband; What will he eat? He can’t cook”(Believe me, I have heard that too). And I would be lying if I say these words/thoughts haven’t affected me. I have several times thought about my demanding job which I enjoy; juxtaposed my future life with this and felt clueless. But now I realize I had been doing it all wrong. Sheryl mentions that one of the mistakes women do in their careers right from the beginning is jumping the gun. From an early age, girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. Sheryl tells that when it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather open them. Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. 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.

Sheryl advises that anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open. Don’t enter the workforce already looking for the exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.

There are several other sections in the book which addresses topics like ‘Make your partner a real partner’, ‘The Myth of doing it all’, ‘Working together for equality’, ’It’s a Jungle Gym and not a ladder’ and such. Each of these sections is as insightful as the five sections I mentioned above with interesting anecdotes from Sheryl’s corporate life thrown into them.

I have heard many criticisms about this book with several people mentioning that Sheryl Sandberg is too privileged – born to a wealthy family in USA and one of those rare people who can afford high quality childcare; to understand the problems which real women faces in this world. I found these criticisms to her book quite baseless because she does portray a real picture of the experiences that a woman goes through in her working life. Sheryl may be privileged, but that doesn’t mean that her core concerns are different. She is a true role model and we can learn a lot from her.

‘Lean In’ is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. ‘Lean In’ is not applicable only to those who work in corporates, it is applicable to every woman no matter in which form you contribute to the society, be it as a social worker/volunteer, entrepreneur, services professional or stay-at-home mom.This book will be an interesting read for a man too, because it throws light into the real problems women face at the work environment and how a male boss/colleague can be more helpful and compassionate. Because, as Sheryl quips, won’t the world be a better place if half of our countries were run by women and half of our homes by men?


From → books

  1. vishalbheeroo permalink

    M looking forward to it. The problem is attitudes towards women need to change in the patriarchal and unequal society. I believe that a working woman can well look after her family and marriage. A perfect example is Sushmita Sen film actor and looking after her daughters.

    • Yay! Do let me know your thoughts after you read it.

      Yes, I admire Sushmita Sen for her courage to be unconventional too.

  2. Interesting concept, though I don’t really think this is my sort of book. Loved your review and the points that you have summarised.

    Won’t the world be a better place if half of our countries were run by women and half of our homes by men? – that is so beautifully said!

    • Yes TGND, isn’t that beautiful ! 🙂

      But I am sad that you won’t be reading the book ;( Do you read non-fiction usually?

      • I do read non-fiction, but I am only starting out in that genre. I mostly read memoirs and travel books in non-fiction. Maybe such books will come later. 🙂

  3. Hi girl in jammies,
    i just dont know how i even landed here on this page( i was goggling for owl jewels) and when i saw this post i thought i would pen down my thoughts on this particular post. Maybe its in the US culture that the boss’s compassionate to his/her employees is shown in the form of hug, but here in the middle east or india for that matter if it is done, i dont think it would be in the form of compassion or would it? Secondly why would you want compassion from your boss and why do we cry for every single issue and try to see for compassion, why can’t we think like for our own.
    Since i am a working mom here and the condition in this middle east for women working is quite different both in private and govt. I work in private and i know the kind of Pressure i get and that too from an Indian Boss. I dont think i would go to my boss when i am down and expect a hug from him..( he would be in jail for this here;))..i hope i have not written anything that is disagreeing with you ideas…

    • inidanemiratigirl, Welcome here.

      Yes I understand the difference in cultures you pointed out and it is a very valid point. The entire reason for Sheryl writing about the incident in her book and me quoting the same in this blog was because she wanted to point out that it is ok to be emotional at your job and we shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it. I agree that we shouldn’t be crying at every single issue, but at the end of the day, people do get emotional at times. It is entirely human.That was the only point to be made.

      Lol at your boss ending up at jail if he acted the same way as Mark Zuckerberg. And hats off to you for being a working mom in middle east and managing the pressure at work and home.

  4. Pratibha permalink

    Nice review, thanks. Want to read this book now. 🙂 Had watched a TED talk from her sometime ago and remember that “dont leave before you actually leave” part very distinctly and found the talk inspiring. Recommend watching that TED talk.

    • You should read it and you should let me know your thoughts on the same too. Yes, I watched the TED talk after reading the book 🙂

  5. That was a nice read. But don’t you think it isn’t only women who hold themselves back? What about the rest of the characters- the parents, the partner, even the kids who dictate/ demand that she tote the well-worn path?

    • Yes, it is true that there are a lot of external factors affecting women and the books throws some light into the same factors too. However I picked those sections which sounded more relevant to me. I believe we women should have the drive and never stop believing in ourselves. Once this step is achieved, we can take care of the rest with confidence (albeit with lots of help from others).

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