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Essay: Book Review Essay – 'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg

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  • Published: 14 November 2015*
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The book ‘Lean In’ is written by Sheryl Sandberg, who is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Facebook. Sheryl Sandberg has been ranked eight on Fortune’s list of the 50 most powerful women in business and has become one of America’s most galvanizing leaders, and an icon for millions of women juggling work and family. The book ‘Lean In’ was an outcome of the TEDTalk, which she gave in 2010 expressing concerns about the stagnation of progress for women in achieving major leadership positions. Lean In is a provocative and inspiring book about women and power. Ms. Sandberg throughout the book urges women to take risk and seek new challenges, to find work that they love, and to remain passionately engaged with that work at the highest levels throughout their lives, which I thought is relevant for women to succeed not just at work, but at family front as well.
I found the book very interesting to read and in fact, as soon as I completed reading the book, I recommended reading this book to my sister and many of my female friends back in India, who I thought were in similar situation as most women described by Ms. Sandberg in the book, trying to find the right balance between family and work and on the verge of quitting job. The book is issue based and practitioner oriented offering solutions to the issues. The book made me realize that women work in two shifts, i.e., one at office and one at home taking care of family compared to men, who just work at office with absolutely no responsibility at home. As I read through the book, I started realizing how true each of the issues been discussed were as I could relate and recollect many of them. I feel this book is a good eye opener not just for women, but for men as well to stand up and be a responsible partner.
Ms. Sandberg begins by asking for reserved parking spot for pregnant women at Google after she experiences swollen feet as she races to a meeting across a crowded parking lot while fighting back nausea. The point she makes here is that the need for reserved parking spot was never felt until she experienced it herself, and the women below her never brought it up because they didn’t have the power. The issue this situation highlights is that we need more women in power for women’s issues to be noticed and addressed. The other issues she discuss here is of the gender inequality. She says that the blunt truth is that men still run the world and follows up with statistics that show that of the 195 independent countries in the world, only 17 are led by women and a meager 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. These statistics are really disheartening and she is right when she says that, ‘it is time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled and the promise of equality is not the same as true equality’. I agree with the author on this because the fact that a corporate office in an upscale city like New York didn’t have a women’s restroom shows how partial and unequal we are to the women. The author is right in saying that ‘a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes’. I believe this will happen when more women take up leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.
The author says that other barriers apart from the external barriers erected by the society, that hinder women exists within them. These are the internal barriers, which hold women back due to lack of self-confidence, by not raising hands, and by pulling back when women should be leaning in. Women tend to internalize the negative message they get throughout their lives of not being outspoken, aggressive and more powerful than men. Ms. Sandberg says that the solution to gaining power is by breaking these internal barriers. I agree with the author here and believe that it is time that we encourage more women to aim for leadership position and men to support women in that pursuit.
Sheryl Sandberg says that she was raised to believe that girls could do anything boys could do and that all career paths were open to girls. She gives example from her college life where men and women competed openly and aggressively with one another in class, activities, and job interviews and thought that the world seemed equal. But her beliefs were proved wrong after 20 years after her graduation when the world had not evolved nearly as much as she believed it would. The rising concern was the scaling back and dropping out of workforce in high numbers of highly trained women. The reason for this is that the world didn’t evolve enough to give women enough flexible options to manage work and family commitment. Girls grow up watching their mothers trying to do it all and believe that something has to be given up, which in this case is their careers. The academic excellence of girls have not translated into significant number of women in leadership position because girls are discouraged from taking risks and advocating for oneself, which are an important trait for career progression.
The author makes a valid point by saying that the desire of leadership is largely a culturally created and reinforced trait. The societal expectations determine what an individual can and should accomplish in large part. It is often viewed for men to be ambitious, powerful and successfully, while women who exhibit these traits are seen as violators of unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct and often have to pay a social penalty.
Gender stereotypes is one of the reason that hold women back from achieving the leadership position and to compound the problem is a social-psychological phenomenon called ‘stereotype threat’, which is the tendency to conform to negative stereotypes about yourself that you are aware of. The stereotype of the working mother is a stressed-out woman who either neglects her job or her kids, or is inadequate at both. As a result, women feel they have no good choices, but to remain in the workforce. The solution the author offers to these problem is the portrayals of women as a competent professionals and happy mothers. Women need to overcome fear to pursue professional success and personal fulfillment. They should be ambitious not just in pursuing their dreams but in aspiring to become leaders in their fields. I think finding the right career is the key that will take the women all way to the top.
The author says that the internal barrier can alter the women’s behavior, when in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within. Women instead of feeling proud of their accomplishments and recognition, feel fraudulent, undeserving and guilty. The author says that the women have an imposter syndrome, which makes them feel less confident about their own skills and which holds them back. Women tend more to underestimate themselves than men and often judge their performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their performance as better than it actually is. The other interesting observation the author makes is that the women attribute their success to external factors, while attributing failure an inherent lack of ability. The internalization of failure hurts the future performance of women. The solution to this problem is ‘fake it till you feel it’ strategy. Feeling confident or pretending to feel confident is necessary to reach for opportunity. Taking initiative, grabbing opportunity and seeking out challenges are critical for overcoming these internal barriers. As a society it is our responsibility to acknowledge that women are less likely to keep their hands up and we need more institutions and individuals to notice and correct this behavior by encouraging, promoting, and championing more women, of we want a world with greater equality.
Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. Ms. Sandberg makes this claim on the basis of result of an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in workplace. Half the students received the original case and the other half of the received the case with just one difference, i.e. the experimenters changed the name of character from Heidi to Howard. The result of the experiment was that Howard came across as a more appealing colleague and Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not ‘the type of person you would want to hire or work for’. The gender difference created a very different impression of the same person. The characterization of men and women in opposition to each other and the evaluation based on stereotypes place the professional achievement and all other traits associated with it in the male column, while women’s column is placed with caregiver, sensitive and communal characteristics. The double bind bias is the reason why women are held back.
For women self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense and to protect themselves from being disliked, women question their own abilities and downplay their achievements. The women have to overcome a huge stumbling block and find a right balance between being nice and competent. Owing one’s success is key to achieving more success and for women, taking credit comes at a real and professional cost.
Another issues concerning women is negotiation. It is viewed as violating perceived gender norm when a women negotiates on her own behalf and is seen a demanding by both male and female colleagues. The solution to this problem is that women must come across as being nice, concerned about other and appropriately female, think personally and act communally, and negotiate for all women by substituting ‘We’ for ‘I’. It is important that all women came together and supported one another in the pursuit of equality.
Ladder the most common metaphor for careers is no longer applicable to most workers and is replaced by the career jungle gym. A ladder is limited on which you can go either up or down and are looking at the butt of the person in front of you. But, a jungle gym offers more creative exploration of reaching the top in many different ways. Women especially, starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers or reentering the workforce after taking time off benefit from the jungle gym model. The idea behind jungle gym is to be flexible and pursue opportunities by taking a unique path with occasional dip, detours, and even dead ends that present a better chance for fulfillment.
The author suggest setting two types of goals: one which is long-term, where the focus should be on seeking diverse experiences, taking risk and going for it and the other one is a 18 month plan, where focus should be on setting targets that can be accomplished and setting personal goals for learning new skills over the next eighteen months. It is important for women to shift the thinking from ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that and I will learn by doing it’. This requires change in attitude and thinking, which comes from within by being self-confident.
The author says that when some finds the right mentor, it is obvious and they know if right away, and the question ‘Are you my mentor’? becomes a statement ‘You are my mentor!’ The author uses a very good analogy of describing how you know when you find the right mentor through a story of baby bird from the children’s book ‘Are you my mother’? She says, chasing or forcing to find the right mentor rarely helps. The assumption of finding the right mentor to be pushed up the ladder teaches women of being dependent of others, instead of being independent. It is important to make young women understand that getting a mentor won’t help them excel. Instead, they should be encouraged to excel so that they can get a mentor as studies have shown that mentors select mentees based on performance and potential and invest in those who stand out for their talent and who can really benefit from help.
The author says mentorship is often a more reciprocal relationship, where both mentee and mentor benefit from it. The mentee receives direct assistance from mentor, while the mentor receives useful information, greater commitment from colleagues and a sense of fulfillment and pride, which benefits the mentor. The key is to do it right for everyone to succeed.
The author suggests the following that are expected of a mentee:
‘ A mentee should be positive and prepared.
‘ A mentee should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor.
‘ A mentee should respect mentor’s time and focus on specific problem with real solutions.
It is important to note that mentorship programs work best when combined with other kinds of development and training. There has to a leadership development program specifically tailored to women by assigning them sponsors and providing them executing coaching to push them up the ladder.
Authentic communication is the basis of successful relationship at home and is really effective at work. Studies show that people in low-power positions are more hesitant to share their views and often hedge their statement when they do. Thus, women carry additional set of fears when speaking honestly in a professional environment. Women fear that speaking out would portray them as being not considered a team player, nagging, constructive criticism viewed as plain old criticism and may call attention to themselves, which might open them up to attack. The challenge is communicate honestly without hurting the feelings of others. It is a skill that can be learned by empathizing others. The author suggest that when communicating truth it is better to use simple language, less is often more and should have the ability to listen.
The other important issue Sandberg talks is about how difficult it is to give individuals an honest feedback. The author makes a valid point by saying that unlike truth, feedback is not absolute. It an opinion based on observation and experiences. It is necessary to learn to accept feedback constructively and work on to strengthen the weakness. One should be open to hear truth, which means taking responsibility for mistakes. Thanking people publicly for their openness and honesty encourages them to continue the practice, while send sending a strong message to other to follow. The author says that the best way to deliver an honest message in a good natured way is to use humor as a tool. I agree and humor won’t be taken personally by people when hard truths are communicated.
Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships and helps us to connect with colleagues. The author stresses on the need to understand emotions and says that the willing to discuss them make a better manager, peer and partners. Sharing personal lives will allows many to steer through workplace with less stress. Sandberg shares her personal story, where she honestly shared her personal life and emotions for turning down an attractive job offer while going through a divorce with the employer and when she was ready for the position, she called the employer. Her honest communication of emotion made the task of calling the employer again after a year for the position one of the easiest one.
Sandberg says that when it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them. Women make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family and this stands out to be reason that hold them back and leave before they leave. The author here is arguing that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives and not before, and certainly not years in advance. The time to lean in duration before having children and not the time to lean back.
Sandberg make a very emotionally touching point by saying that the emotional support and shared experiences that a spouse provides cannot be bought. While reading this, I felt how true it is as I now live far from my parents in the U.S., while my parents live in India and at times I miss the emotional support that my parents provide when I am down with a bad mood. The same applies for married couple for whom emotional support and shared experiences is priceless. It is important for men to be more empowered at home just as women have the need to be empowered at work. If women feel the need to be empowered at work, then it is important that men are empowered at home to share the responsibility at the home. Women should encourage men to take more responsibility at home and let them do things their own way, instead of acting as gatekeeper and being reluctant to hand over responsibility. Rather than delegating, each partner should be in charge of specific activities for the 50-50 partnership to work efficiently. It is critical to have spousal support for women to succeed at work and that support starts at home by sharing responsibility. Also, the studies indicate that when there is parental involvement children benefit greatly and when loving fathers are involved children have higher levels of psychological well-being and better cognitive abilities. Thus, it is important to encourage men to lean in to their families just as it is important to encourage women to lean in in to their professional life. For a women it is important to find a partner who is ready to support her and take on his share of responsibility at home and be a real partner.
Sandberg makes a bold statement saying that the greatest trap ever set for women was the coining of the phrase ‘Having It All’. The phase unduly imply that women need to devote full attention to professional and family life and in end stresses out women who are forced to exit workforce to take up fulltime work at home of raising children. The author suggests that instead of ask ‘can we have it all’? women should be asking the more practical question ‘can we do it all’? The essence here is realizing what is most important for a women and her family. It is important for women to realize that being perfectionist in things that mattered are important rather than trying to be perfect in everything they do, which causes frustration. The author suggests that the best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately and to set limits and stick to them. The message here is that women need to draw a line of what they are willing to do and what they are not willing to do. The organization should have more flexible work policies and female employees should be encouraged more to take this option rather than penalizing them. Having flexible work policy would allow retention of highly talented women employees and we could see more women climbing up the leadership position.
World has a way of reminding women that they are women and girls that they are girls. Men and women are often seen through a different gender lens. The world is biased when it comes to accepting the success and achievements of women. It’s a hard fact, which we need to face it and accept it. For women ignoring the issue is a classical survival technique and the success has been dependent on fitting in by not speaking up. However, the survival technique of staying quiet and fitting in hasn’t helped women much. It is time for women to speak out and identify the barriers that are holding women back and finding solutions to it and addressing these issues openly can make a big difference.
Gender bias influences how people view performance and typically raises people’s assessment of men while lowering assessment if women. Everybody is biases and social scientist call this as ‘bias blind spot’ that causes people to be too confident about their own powers of objectivity so that they fail to correct for bias. This means that the outcome of any activity can be modified to justify discrimination. The solution to this problem is calling attention of people to this bias that forces them to think whether there is a real problem or perception problem. The motive is to give women benefit of doubt.
Sandberg concludes the book by urging everyone to work together to achieve true equality. The true equality which is long overdue can be achieved only when more women rise to the top of every government and every industry. For women and to achieve their full potential it is important for women to have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibility and men to have respect for contributing inside the home. Equality can be achieved when everyone is encouraged for taking up their share of responsibility in their expected respective environment.
Lean In offers raised many important issues and offers practical solutions based on Sheryl Sandberg’s personal experience and research data. I think Sheryl has a charismatic leadership style, who always inspires, develops, and empowers people around her, both professionally and personally. The only criticism about this book I thought was that all through the book Sandberg talked how she’s managed it as a mother and not enough on how she’s managed it as a leader. A view and insights from her leadership position had been helpful. But, there were many important issues that this book raised, which are eye open and hopefully will lead to true equality. I am not sure if I would have every purchased this book and read it, but I would like to thank Dr. Ray Montagno for recommending such a wonderful book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

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