Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Work and women

Tarah Childes reviews Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


Discovering that your child has head lice is an all too familiar and irksome part of parenting. However, when Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, discovered her two children had them, she happened to be flying on the corporate jet of John Donahoe, the CEO of eBay, while on the way to a business conference. Not an experience most women will be familiar with, I’m sure. And herein lies the problem with Sandberg’s first motivational book: it’s just not accessible to the majority women, and certainly not those in much lower income brackets.

However, Sandberg does have some valuable — if somewhat didactic — advice to give to ambitious women, particularly in the business sector. And Lean In is her rallying call, following her 2010 TED Talk, where she first laid out her message. How, after all, are we to create a workplace where women feel entitled to ask for a raise, a promotion, viable maternity leave and equal pay when the stats are still vastly skewed in the favour of men? Consider for moment that of 197 heads of state only twenty two are women, and in the world of business, a mere eighteen of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

So is the drastic absence of women on due to a lack of ambition or lack of support? Sandberg acknowledges that it is both, and proposes we wage war on both fronts. She, however, focuses on the internal barriers that prevent women from “taking a seat at the table” and pushing further into their professions. She addresses fears, skewed self-perceptions, lack of domestic assertiveness and the predicament women find themselves in within society when traits like success and likeability are positively correlated for men but inversed for women. She peppers her advice with anecdotes and lessons learnt in her own illustrious career. And what a career she has had. Prior to Facebook, Sandberg was VP of Global Online Sales and Ops at Google. She has also served as Chief of Staff for the US Treasury Department, and before that was a research assistant to Lawrence Summers at the World Bank. With credentials like that, it’s difficult to argue that Sandberg (number six on the Forbes List for Most Powerful women) doesn’t understand hard work and persistence.

However, I found it disappointing that she fails to outline or detail exactly how she achieves the balance she advocates. We do not know how many nannies she employs, nor do we know her views on what a work/life balance even looks like. In fact, her anecdotes seem to indicate that she works increasingly longer hours, and orientates her life around her work schedule rather than visa versa.

In the end, her message is encouraging, if a little confusing. While she has some excellent advice to give in the areas of tenacity and courage, this advice largely applies to privileged women in corporate America, leaving the rest of us wanting more of an explanation, and a little hazy on exactly what the end goal is. It is also hard to ignore that it is a lot easier to suggest that all women need to do is dig deep and carry on, rather than challenging institutions on fundamental issues like fixed working hours and benefits that would help to facilitate a more conducive working environment for women.

Lean In is published by WH Allen, R265.



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