Lean Times

Lean In Book JacketIt’s been lean times this week.  Or perhaps I should say Lean In times, because in the past seven days or so I not only read Sheryl Sandberg’s book by that name, but also saw the author speak at City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco.  Look out Richard Engel, I was embedded in the mommy wars (not to mention the gender wars) and now I’m reporting back.  Hot off the presses: It’s hell out there.

There has been plenty of fuss and hype around Lean In – neither of which are entirely deserved.  I don’t think it’s in line for a Pulitzer, but I enjoyed the book and zipped through it fairly quickly.  It provided food for thought regarding possible patterns (good and bad) in my thinking and professional choices.

The book is also great fodder for conversation, as it seems that nearly everyone has read it, or is about to read it, or has heard about it.  So to a point, I understand what all the fuss is about.

But… What IS all the fuss about?  Lean In has provoked strong reactions, particularly among women.  Some might even call it polarizing.

Criticism tends to fall into three buckets:

  • Sheryl Sandberg writes only for women who aspire to sit in the C-suite of a large corporation.
  • She thinks the only way for a mother to lean in is to work full-time outside the home.
  • She lives in a bubble, with vast resources to hire nannies, housekeepers etc. How dare she lecture the rest of us on ambition for leadership? If I had her wealth, I could have it all too!

Interestingly, Ms. Sandberg seems to have anticipated most of this blowback because she seeks to defuse it in the Introduction, and throughout the book.  She acknowledges that it isn’t intended to address every problem any working woman might encounter, regardless of her occupation or title.  And she’s just short of apologetic about her wealth and privilege.  She knows we all can’t have nannies, housekeepers and the flexibility that comes with being the COO of one of the fastest growing companies in America.

Sheryl SandbergShould all that make her experience and insights less valuable?  I don’t think so.  The main gist of the book is how to battle gender bias – not how to overcome poverty or bust out of the working class.  (That said, I agree that it might have been more impactful if she’d included anecdotes from junior corporate workers, or women in slightly less glamorous roles than in the Treasury Department, or at Facebook or Google.)

As a single professional woman without children, specific parts of Lean In resonated with me, such as how/if to negotiate pay.  Ms. Sandberg tells a great story of being offered the COO position at Facebook – a role that she really wanted, so she was tempted to accept the first offer.  What if she asked for more money, and Mark Zuckerberg hired someone else instead?

The men in her life were horrified, and eventually helped convince her to negotiate (successfully).  I may never be offered a COO role, but like most of my female friends I have felt this near-paralyzing fear of negotiating better terms.

The inverse relationship between likeability and perceived success/acumen also hit home.  If a man is successful at work, colleagues usually see him as likeable.  They want to be on his team.  If a woman is successful, she may get credit for her skills – but she’s also often seen as less likeable and even aggressive.

My friends and I agree; the likeability gender bias is rampant among women, as well as men.  I work in fairly well-balanced organization, gender-wise, but our senior leaders are not judged equally — by pretty much any of us.  If a man at that level is reserved or cool, that’s OK.  He is still really smart.  No one says “He’s smart, but…”.

However with female senior leaders the “but” is usually followed by, “she’s cold” or “she’s aggressive” or “she lacks empathy”.  We all (male and female colleagues) seem satisfied if the men are myopic, and heads-down humorless. If they actually have a sense of humor and are engaging too, we tend to gush.  But female leaders are supposed to be smart AND warm AND nurturing just to earn a place at the table.

Lean In includes a chapter about mentoring that I think every woman should read BEFORE she decides to mentor-up.  Both Ms. Sandberg and Condoleezza Rice (who interviewed her last night at City Arts & Lectures) say that they are regularly approached by complete strangers, who ask them to be their mentors.

It might seem impressive to claim someone so famous as a mentor, but wouldn’t it be better to have the support of someone who really cares about you and is invested in your future to help guide you?  You know, someone who actually knows your first name?

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the last few chapters of the book, which were prosaic and filled with more platitudes than substance. (“Men need to lean in at home, and women need to lean in at work.”)  All that stuff is fine, but if it were that easy women would just buy their husbands the book and be done with it!

As it is, there’s still a long way to go before women claim their share of leadership positions in business and government – and here is where I get excited about the book, and the movement.  Sheryl Sandberg has money, fame and altruism working for her, as well as the Facebook platform to promote her global community, www.leanin.org.

Instead of the end of a book, it feels like just the beginning of an important and (hopefully) fruitful conversation.

One thought on “Lean Times

  1. Ed Park

    Enjoyed your article, especially as I haven’t read Sheryl’s book. We watched her interview with Oprah but the book probably has a lot more depth.

    The inverse relationship between likeability and perceived success/acumen also hit home. If a man is successful at work, colleagues usually see him as likeable. They want to be on his team. If a woman is successful, she may get credit for her skills – but she’s also often seen as less likeable and even aggressive.

    It’s unfortunate that there is a double standard with respect to male vs female leaders.

    There was a recent article on The Verge which talked about how a woman CEO was running into gender bias when trying to raise capital from VCs:

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