Book Review: Lean In

I was sitting in Heathrow Airport, contemplating the 13-14 hour journey ahead of me to Malé in the Maldives, and the likelihood of my tablet’s remaining 60% of battery life making it that distance. In that instance, I did the unthinkable with my new minimalist lifestyle and decided to buy a book in case my use of the Kindle app meant that I could not read. The other advantage to a book over using Kindle was that I could read a book during the 15-20 minutes during take off and landing; with an hour long flight from Colombo to Malé that’s a large proportion not reading.

Wandering through the limited aisles of the air-side WHSmiths, in between the typical holiday romances, the autobiographies and the self-help books was Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. I’d heard her book mentioned a few times by friends and decided that it was a book I should investigate. The book follows on and expands on Sandberg’s successful and popular TEDTalk “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders“. I wasn’t really expecting much in the book to be directly relevant to myself, as I am not a woman, and would just be interesting to educate myself further on modern feminism and issue faced by women in the workplace, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much some of the ideas were applicable to everyone.

Sandberg starts the book retelling the story of how when she was pregnant at Google, she had to park far away from the entrance when she was late for a meeting and had to waddle as fast as she could, and afterwards stormed over to Larry and Brin’s office and demanded spaces for pregnant women near the doors, and they said “Yes, of course. We’d just never thought about it before, but you’re totally right” and she realised she hadn’t thought about it either until she was in that situation and how most women at the company must have suffered in silence because they didn’t have the seniority that she enjoyed and didn’t feel they could discuss this with the founders of the company.

Today, globally, women represent 20% of seats in parliaments and of the 197 countries, only 17 are lead by women. In the US, in the November 2012 election, women increased their representation to a paltry 18%. Of relevance to me, in the UK, 22% of seats in the House of Commons are held by women. In the business world, things are even worse, with 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 14% of executive officer positions and 17% of board seats are held by women. In 1974, a newly hired female economist was told by her new boss “I’m glad to have you. I figure I’m getting the same brains for less women”, and this was considered a compliment, yet today, women still earn only 77% of the salary of men, and this drops to 64% for black women and 54% for Hispanic women. It’s obvious that women still face barriers to leadership and representation, but it’s shocking to me to see just how bad it is.

Sandberg advocates removing the internal barriers that many women have, which are predominately internalised  pressures from society. Women are so used to being told that they shouldn’t be aggressive or that they should be passive that they instinctively don’t push for their self-interests. A woman showing the same level of leadership as a man is often called bossy, yet men are rarely described as this. She recalled a story of a meeting where she met a client and his female companions sat at the side of the meeting room rather than at the table, and didn’t even join them when asked. Sandberg spends most of the book arguing that women need to have more confidence in their abilities and that they should push for what they want from their careers more. That they should “lean in”. She talks about some of the self-limiting behaviours women tend to have ingrained into them by society, including imposter syndrome, which I’ll talk about in a separate future post, as it’s one of the items that stood out the most relevant to everyone reading the book.

Sandberg acknowledges that some women argue for removing the external social barriers preventing women getting leadership positions, but says at the same time, those barriers won’t fall until there are more women in leadership positions. It’s a chicken and egg problem. She thinks they are both important and thinks they should both be worked on, but she has decided to focus on helping women realise and tackle their own internal barriers. Dealing with the internalised issues are easier for an individual to change.  She also says that she understands her critics will accuse her of letting the institutions off the hook, or worse, blaming the victim, but these issues are not the fault of women, but of the social constructs that cause the externalised and internalised barriers preventing many women from progressing.

Other advice she offers is to not worry about issue surround children and child birth until you are ready to leave on maternity leave. Don’t let the future possibility of having children make you subconsciously hold back your career long before it’s relevant. Having an interesting job to return to makes it far more likely that you’ll return after child birth, but if you lean back early in your career, it’s far less likely that you’ll have a job you’ll want to return to.

She advises to make sure your partner is for more of an equal partner in everything, including household work, and that it’s far easier to set expectations earlier than trying to change the balance of work at a later stage once they’re entrenched. She also touches on the idea of normalising men staying at home and looking after children, and how men have felt alienated by other stay-at-home mothers.

She also talks about how women shouldn’t attempt to hold themselves to an unobtainable standard, with attempting to have both a full time job and full time care of children and that it’s okay to leave your office at 5.30. People won’t judge you. At the same, you don’t need to feel guilt if you are unable to devote as much time to your children as you’d like to.  It won’t hurt your child’s development if you are not there every minute if they are supported by at least one parent.

Instead of perfection, we should aim for sustainable and fulfilling. The right question is not “Can I do it all?” but “Can I do what’s most important for me […]?”

Women have spent the last few decades trying to fit into the male dominated workplace, thinking that if they can just show that women are just as capable as men attitudes will chance, but also because it’s safer to not draw attention to their gender. However, this clearly isn’t working. Most men don’t intentionally set out to disadvantage women; they’re blind to disadvantages women face because they don’t experience it. Talking about the issues opens their eyes to the issues. The more they are discussed, the more they will stay in the limelight until they are fixed and attitudes changed.

For me, the book is important for both men and women to read. It provides plenty of advice on how to reach for your goals and desires, and for men, it gives examples of how you can pay attention to your actions or subconscious decisions to help women gain a more equal footing in the world.

Image Credits: Restored Style

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