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.