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Review: ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg

Review: ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg post image

Since I finished reading Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, there are two studies that I have repeated to just about every woman I know:

  • Researchers gave two groups of students identical descriptions of a venture capitalist save one difference: in one group, the subjects name was Heidi, in the other, it was Howard. While the students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, they rated Howard as a more appealing colleague. “Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not ‘the type of person you would want to hire or work for.’ … 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.”
  • Women apply for jobs where they feel like they meet 100 percent of the criteria, while men apply for jobs where they feel like they meet 60 percent of the criteria. Because of this difference in perception, women sometimes self-select themselves out of promotions or new opportunities that men will seize.

Of all the studies that Sandberg cites in the book, these two stuck out to me because they’re just small examples where I’ve seen these factors at work in my own life. I’ve been in situations where successful women are labeled strident or aggressive. I’ve skipped over applying for jobs that seemed interesting because I felt unqualified. I’ve tempered my opinions and smiled through criticism because of this underlying knowledge that it’s important for women to seem “nice” in order to be successful. But honestly, how frustrating is that?

Lean In came out to a huge amount of press when it came out in March 2013, but I didn’t make time to read it until late this summer. In the book, Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, looks at why women’s progress towards taking leadership roles in corporations, non-profits and government entities has stalled. She looks at some causes of this inequality as well as some solutions to encourage and empower women to take more control of their careers.

One of the most important caveats to make about the book is that Sandberg isn’t trying to address or fix many of the structural, external barriers that keep women out of positions of leadership. Instead, Lean In focuses on tearing down barriers once women are at the top and on strategies or behaviors that women can adopt to help themselves get to the top. One level, that feels a bit like a cop-out — why not try and attack issues like sexism, discrimination, harassment, or parental leave policies? — but on another level, it feels like Lean In is offering practical advice for use in the existing business climate.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was the way Sandberg incorporated her own experiences as a woman in business into the book. And she wasn’t afraid to admit some of her weaker moments or mistakes in both her career and personal life. None of them are huge, but they’re enough to make her seem human and keep the book feeling conversational.

It’s been awhile since Lean In first came out and I have to admit I don’t remember all of the criticisms that were raised initially. But in thinking about it, I can see why feminists who have never been afraid to call themselves feminists would think Sandberg doesn’t go far enough in her arguments. That said, for me Lean In offered a first opportunity to start thinking about my own work and will to lead and has provoked conversations with female friends and colleagues. What’s important is that Lean In doesn’t become the end of this conversation.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bookmammal November 6, 2013, 6:23 am

    Wow–that’s a pretty thought-provoking idea about women applying for less jobs because of their perceptions of qualification. I need to sit with that one for awhile. . .

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 3:00 pm

      At first, I couldn’t believe that! But then I thought about my own job searches and the resumes that I looked at for an open job in my office… and it’s totally true. As women, we need to think more highly of ourselves before anything is going to change.

  • Meg November 6, 2013, 3:01 pm

    Glad to hear you enjoyed this one! I’ve had my eye on it for a while and actually bought a copy for my sister, but neither of us have gotten to it yet. Definitely interested to see what the hype is all about.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey November 6, 2013, 5:20 pm

    As I may have mentioned once or twice, I loved this book! It’s true that it doesn’t address the underlying problem, but she clearly doesn’t condone sexism either and given that, I really appreciated her practical advice. I also liked the conversational tone and I always enjoy hearing about how other women deal with problems relevant to my own life.

    The two studies you mentioned stuck out to me too. First because they’re horrifying but also because they emphasize how subconscious sexism can be. I agree that this can’t be the end of this conversation, but I do expect to give it to several people as a Christmas present because it’s certainly a great way to get people thinking.

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 3:02 pm

      Exactly — it’s the subconscious sexism and decisions individuals make personally and professionally that need to be addressed. I loved the book as a conversation starter, but think we all need to keep pressing on these issues to make a change.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End November 6, 2013, 7:14 pm

    Every time I’m reluctant to apply for a job because I feel underqualified, my brother-in-law brings up that statistic about how men vs women apply for jobs.

    I thought Jessica Valenti made a really good point about this book earlier this year, that the criticisms of Sheryl Sandberg seemed to be demanding that she live up to impossible standards of what a feminist should look like. Valenti says that there are criticisms to be made of Sandberg but that we shouldn’t let that be the entire discourse.

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 3:03 pm

      Valenti makes a great point, sort of what I was thinking but better articulated. There are criticisms to make, but that doesn’t invalidate what she says or even make the conversations she’s starting not worth having.

  • Care November 6, 2013, 7:42 pm

    I have been wanting to read this book, too. And yes, we (us, society, most people?) are just harsher critics of women. AND, I bet that if women do apply for jobs that they aren’t ‘qualified’ for they are judged harsher for it. Who will they give the ‘benefit of the doubt’? Just sayin’.

    Happy Nonfiction November!

  • Christina November 6, 2013, 9:21 pm

    I read this book early last month and had a similar reaction, Kim. How many times have I not applied for an internship, fellowship, or research opportunity on campus because I didn’t think my qualifications were strong enough? One of her earliest points about women feeling like frauds when they do advance completely stunned me with its frankness and truth — nearly every time I’m called on in class or take a test, I have this expectation that someone will figure out that I’m not smart enough and therefore don’t belong. In a way, this is what I wish all the media attention had focused on rather than if Sandberg has the right to tell lower socio-economic women how to be working mothers.

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 3:04 pm

      Oh my gosh, the impostor syndrome! It’s such a weird, pervasive thing that we are all reluctant to talk about. I struggle with that too.

  • Melinda November 7, 2013, 5:56 am

    I really liked this book! Did you also read it along with the book club?

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 3:05 pm

      I started late and only got to participate in a few of the conversations, but I did little bit 🙂

  • Heather November 7, 2013, 10:55 am

    This book was so interesting and eye-opening to me. I think it would be such a great book for men to read, especially men who manage women, are married to a woman, or have daughters or nieces. Women need to understand this stuff but so do the guys!

  • susan November 10, 2013, 7:21 pm

    I like the discussion she raises and would like to read it. I’m trying to recall the controversy about the book: perhaps it was that she blames the women themselves for their predicaments … that if only they werent like that … that too many women are weak etc. and therein lies the problem. Perhaps it’s easier for her to say that than women in lower economic positions. But I’m just trying to remember all the hubbub. Nonetheless I think it would be a good read . Cheers. http://www.thecuecard.com/