Lean In Leans On
The most widely criticized new author in our country just happens to be the Chief Operating Officer of a company whose market cap is measurably greater than that of United Airlines, Delta, Southwest and American Airlines combined. That same COO, the person who is responsible for all of Facebook’s global operations, also just happens to be a woman. And that’s where the excitement surrounding her book begins.
Lean In explores a familiar American theme: that our society and culture treat women’s career aspirations and the presence of women in the workplace with an all too ever-present bias. Yet Sandberg’s treatment of the familiar theme contains two significant elements that other recent books have not.
One element is her illustration of her points with personal experiences and very specific advice as well as providing supporting data and references. Her own story is recounted over the course of the book, each chapter focusing on a sub-theme of the biases she has encountered, the very biases that Sandberg hopes to resurface as a subject of our cultural, economic and political discourse.
While some may question the need for one more book on the subject of women and equality, Sandberg demonstrates why the subject warrants new discussion based on where we are today. Sandberg’s personal stories of her own experiences in pursuing a career are much more relevant to today’s young women than the stories, important though they are, of Gloria Steinem and her colleagues. Nor is she reticent to speak the truth, stating clearly in the book’s introduction, “It is time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled.”
The second element is that Sandberg makes the significant philosophical and political shift from the idea that only men and male institutions need to change their behavior in order for change to occur. Sandberg argues for the more realistic view that women need to change their behavior as well. Here again she provides a wealth of personal experiences, very specific advice and supporting data to make her case while lending a fresh perspective to a longer struggle.
The title of the book, Lean In, comes from the observation that women are all too often the quieter and less aggressive players in the workplace. One example she provides is the typical conference room meeting in which women routinely take the chairs that are along the wall instead of at the table. By doing so they position themselves at a disadvantage from the outset. Another is not taking a new assignment that would offer more responsibility and career advancement because they are not totally prepared, whereas a male colleague would readily take the challenge. Ms. Sandberg’s view is that until cultural biases have disappeared, women should understand how men behave and play the male game, otherwise they will continue to wait for their chance to have the power to make change happen.
As noted at the start, Sandberg has been widely criticized. The criticisms range from the clearly petty to the thoughtfully semi-accurate. On the clearly petty end is her self-acknowledged use of a writer to assist her with the book. The men who have criticized her on this point must also believe that Fortune 500 male executives write every word of their own books without an editor. On the thoughtful end she has been criticized, often by women, for not recognizing that she is among a privileged few – career women who can afford a nanny and have a husband willing to help take care of their children.
Sheryl Sandberg was actually not a privileged child, as many have suggested. Her first chapter portrays the history of her family: a grandmother that was part of a poor family and was pulled out of high school to help make money; a mother who had to drop out of a Ph.D. program when she became pregnant with Sheryl; and Sheryl herself a high school nerd, never picked for team sports. This is not someone who got into Harvard on the basis of family legacy.
Sandberg was not a product of affirmative action, a critique made to imply that she is really not that talented. Before joining Facebook as COO, Ms. Sandberg was vice president of Online Sales and Operations for Google, the world’s undisputed leader in web technology. Prior to both of those positions she spent a short time with McKinsey & Company, the name brand management consulting firm that hires only top MBAs from only the top three business schools. There is no affirmative action program for McKinsey, the executive level of Google, or the COO role at a major tech company.
Sandberg does not advocate that all women should have a career; she advocates that any woman should be able to pursue one if that is her choice. Nor does she overlook that millions of single moms in our country struggle to make ends meet at minimum wage jobs. What she does argue is that these issues are not likely to be solved in a cultural environment that precludes women from top roles. The burden, of course, will be on those women who make it to the top to take action and make a difference.
Which brings us right back to why Sheryl Sandberg wrote her book and started a foundation, the Lean In Foundation, to advocate for all women.
I personally find that her critics, both male and female, tend to expose their own biases. Given her overall credentials, if Sandberg’s full name were Jack Welch, tribute would be laid down before her every word. But her first name is Sheryl and, as she will help you understand, that may have a lot to do with the often intense critiques of her and her book. I think the stalled revolution needs to be re-ignited and if you agree then you must read Lean In.
George Jones co-authored The Seven Layers of Integrity®, a book on professional and business ethics used in college and university courses. He lectured at Rice University where he developed and taught “Science Policy and Ethics” for a graduate school program. A management consultant, George’s career began with Arthur Andersen’s consulting division, now Accenture, where he was a partner for five years. He then worked with information technology startups for over twenty years and continues to do so in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. He earned his M.S. in Computer Science at The Ohio State University and is a CPA. His blog site on corporate ethics is www.ethicsbite.com. He resides in Santa Fe.