Lean In: A Primer on Owning Your Power

978-0-385-34994-9.JPGBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

By now, you’ve probably had time to pick up Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In – or you’ve at least read a few of the reviews. My first take: I liked it, and more than I was expecting to. If you’re in a position to advocate for women at your company, it would be a great buy if only for its lengthy bibliography, which is basically a comprehensive list of every single study on the business-case for women at the top and the ways women are prevented from getting there – from stereotype threat to work/life issues to the tiara syndrome to false meritocracies and more. Her message about taking risks and expanding your ambition is also valuable.

Beyond that though, it’s an interesting read on how one woman’s personal understanding of feminism has taken flight alongside her growing acknowledgment of her own influence. It’s an experience that will probably resonate with many of our readers.

Over the past few years, I’ve done hundreds of interviews with senior women in the financial and professional services industries as part of our profile series. And over that time I’ve heard from more and more women who are coming to terms with their own power. They are realizing that they have the potential to make a difference for other women in their companies.

Sandberg writes that publishing the book and continuing to speak up about women is her own “lean in moment.” She realized that she has the power and the platform to make a difference, and she’s taking the initiative to do so. Many women have more influence than we realize on this matter, yet we shy away from using the f-word (feminism) or speaking up about implicit bias at work (no one wants to be seen as a complainer). But now we are seeing a groundswell of interest and enthusiasm for this issue (for example, Lean In debuted as a number one seller on Amazon‘s Best Sellers list). This could be a “lean in moment” for all of us.

“We can no longer pretend that biases don’t exist, nor can we talk around them,” she writes. How will you own your influence when it comes to gender equality?

Making It Your Thing

When she gave her first TEDTalk, Sandberg writes that a former colleague asked if this was going to be her “thing” from now on. She says:

“At the time, I didn’t know how to respond. Now I would say yes. I made this my ‘thing’ because we need to disrupt the status quo. Staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations of women who entered corporate America could do; in some cases, it might still be the safest path. But this strategy is not paying off for women as a group. Instead, we need to speak out, identify the barriers that are holding women back, and find solutions.”

Sandberg seems poised to start a revolution and she wants everyone – women and men – to join in. But it didn’t start out that way.

She begins the book with a story about how, when she was pregnant with her first child while working at Google, she approached founder Sergey Brin and demanded that the company create reserved parking spaces for pregnant women in the company parking lot.

“To this day, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet,” she writes. “As one of Google’s most senior women, didn’t I have a special responsibility to think about this?”

Lean In is equal parts confession and guidebook. Sandberg shares candid stores about things she wishes she had said or done to help advance equality when she had instead been silent in the face of gender bias. She recounts those times she just could have done more. She gives advice on how other women can own their ambition and take bigger risks. The book tells how her own feminism has evolved over the years and why. She talks about how other women (and men) can own their own influence and make gender equality their “thing” – and why they should.

The book is not without flaws – Sandberg leaves out any explicit discussion around gender and race, for example. There are some contradictions in her advice. And while she believes “leaning in” can lead to better gender balance at the top and speaks glowingly about her experiences as COO of Facebook, the fact remains that senior leadership at the company (and its board) is almost entirely male.

Nevertheless, Lean In is worth the read. It’s a book of important research packaged alongside an honest and candid discussion of how Sandberg has stepped into her own power. It should stir your own imagination as well – what can you do to make a difference for women at work? Where does your own power lie?

3 Responses

  1. I just finished the book. I was confused by the diametrically-opposed reviews, so I had to read it. Bottom line: I loved it. Yes, it comes from a position of incredible privilege, but then, so do I. Her journey to being a feminist in many ways parallels my own.
    I especially appreciated her comparison of mentors to Prince Charming.
    I am now trying to get a circle started. Long live Lean In!

  2. No one book or one person’s experience or take will ever be the definitive statement on the status of women in business and in life. That said, the real benefit of the book and of the “movement” is to broaden and deepen the conversation. As someone who has plugged away at helping women step into their own ambition and step over the hurdles (institutional, societal and personal) that block their way, I can say that, for the first time, my sense is that not only is the conversation happening but it’s actually being heard.
    Perhaps it’s because the numbers are in and the business case is clear; perhaps it’s because women’s innate strengths are more valued in an increasingly global environment or perhaps it’s because women have adapted better to the changed shape of organizations (flatter, requiring more in place leadership and collaboration) or perhaps it’s because the stars are aligned…or more likely, it’s the aggregation of all of the above that is finally making the difference.
    Regardless, we can’t let the moment escape and it’s as much the responsibility of individuals as it is of organizations to seize the moment, work with the momentum and put this conversation to bed once and for all.

  3. I listened to Sheryl speak at the Economists Club of Chicago (IL, USA) yesterday (3/27/13). I found her articulate, charming, clear, and driven about the issue of advancing women leaders in our culture and our companies. One question she posed to the audience was: “Men, raise your hand if anyone has ever asked you if you can ‘have it all?’. Now women, raise your hands if you have ever been asked that question”. Not one hand went up for the men, and almost every hand went up for the women.

    I walked away from the luncheon realizing that our culture may not be “intentionally disadvantaging women” – but we certainly are systematically disadvantaging women in quiet and invisible ways. And this is something both men and women do without even realizing it.

    I applaud her for leveraging her “platform” of influence to get this conversation in the mainstream. I am lucky to be part of an organization that focuses on women’s leadership development ( and believes in women choosing to be the True Leaders in their own life!