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

Lean In is Sheryl Sandberg’s book that describes the barriers women experience in the workplace and methods to help overcome them. She discusses the difficulties women have balancing professional success and personal fulfillment. In her book and, subsequently in her talk at TED, she touches on 3 very important methods to help break down these barriers.

1. Women must learn to Sit at the Table

In the first part of her discussion on TED, Sandberg discusses the idea of sitting at the table. She gives a great example of how women automatically underestimate their abilities. As women we attribute our “success in life to other things, such as luck, hard work, or help from others,” unlike men who attribute their success to themselves. This poses a problem for women in the workplace as we don’t negotiate or advocate for ourselves when it comes to getting that new promotion or negotiating a new contract.

As I was listening to this talk, I remembered that I recently had an attending physician point out to me how I was underestimating my own abilities. During a conversation, I stated to him that the professional success I had achieved in life thus far was because of my sister’s guidance. He looked at me funny and asked why I was giving her the credit as it was me who worked hard to get where I am today. Why did I automatically attribute my success in life to something else? Is it possible that this is something ingrained in women by society?
— Ghai

Sandberg mentions that one of the biggest difficulties in the workplace is the way in which successful women are perceived. She gives an example of a Harvard Business School study where a story about a venture capitalist is given to students. Half of the class has a story where the character is a female, Heidi, and the other half of the students has a story of a male, Howard. The study highlights how both characters were perceived as competent and successful but that Howard was much more likeable whereas Heidi was considered brash, “out for herself and political.” For men, success and likeability are positively correlated yet for women this is the opposite. Sandberg mentions that to be successful and liked in the workplace, women cannot play like the big boys. Women not only have to be “relentlessly pleasant,” but also have to advocate for themselves and acknowledge their own success at the same time. This sounds exceedingly unfair, yet unfortunately very accurate in today’s society.

2. To have it all women must learn to Make Your Life Partner a Real Partner

One of the topics that Sandberg mentions in her book is balancing professional success with personal fulfillment. Sandberg mentions how few women in top leadership positions have a family. She talks of how many women feel that they have to give something up in order to achieve professional success. She is an example of how it is possible to do both successfully.

However, to achieve this, she emphasizes that you need to make your life partner a real partner.

She mentions how women in the workplace do twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare in comparison to men. She explains that if women truly wish to be more successful in the workplace, they must learn to share the burden of housework and childcare with their significant others. Until we learn to do this we will always be putting our professional development on the back burner. She also mentions the bias in society regarding men who stay at home. According to Sandberg, part of the problem is that men who stay at home with children are not welcomed equally in society.

3. Don’t Leave Before You Leave

One of the barriers to women’s success is that we tend to drop out of the race before we’ve even hit the finish line. As women, we sometimes look and plan far in advance. Sandberg mentions that many times women start planning a family even before they’ve gotten married and become preoccupied with how they are going to cope with both their personal and professional goals. In preparation for this, women stop looking for those opportunities or promotions and back down from bigger projects.  She explains that women more or less take their foot off the gas pedal and Lean Back. We look so far in advance that we inadvertently quell our own professional success. She, in turn, encourages women to stop looking so far in advance. She advocates for women to continue on with their personal and professional goals and not to take their foot off the pedal until the baby is ready to come out!

As a final note, we leave you with 3 important messages:

1. Sit at the table. Negotiate for yourself. Don’t be scared of taking risks. Attribute your success to yourself!

2. Make your life partner a real partner. Share the burden. You can’t do it all.

3. Don’t leave before you leave. Don’t plan so far ahead that you take yourself out of the game. Keep that foot on the gas pedal. Remember to Lean In.

We encourage you to take a listen to Sheryl Sandberg's inspirational talk on TED.

More on Sheryl Sandberg...

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. In June 2012, she was also elected to the board of directors by the existing board members, becoming the first woman to serve on Facebook's board. Prior to facebook, Sandberg was VP of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. Before Google, Sandberg served as Chief of Staff for the US Secretary of the Treasury. In 2012 she was named in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world according. Sandberg’s first book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will the Lead was released in 2013. Lean In is a book for professional women to help them achieve their career goals and for men who want to contribute to a more equitable society. Since its launch it has remained at the top of a number of bestseller lists.