Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and the only woman on their board, recently published a book on the lack of women at the top and what women can do to help themselves to climb the career ladder. Ruchika Tulshyan reviews the book and finds that though the ideas are not revolutionary, they are indeed important as they touch on ‘taboo topics’ and women at all stages of their careers will find them useful.
Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’ has apparently sparked off a new wave of the feminist revolution. With strong promotion before the book’s release in March 2013, to launching a website that provides tools on how to create local ‘Lean In Circles’, Sandberg has worked hard to create a community for women where they are able to “lean in”.
What does that mean? Sandberg defines leaning in as “being ambitious in any pursuit”. In her introduction, she highlights that women must define their ideas of goals and success – different for every woman – and then take a no holds barred approach to achieving what they want. Most importantly, they should not let personal fears and apprehensions hamper their accomplishments.
While none of the ideas are revolutionary – certainly not in 2013 – the fact that Facebook’s COO and the first female member on the social media giant’s board wrote it, makes it significant. And no matter how far women have come, the facts prove there’s still a long way to go.
Over half of all professional entry-level roles are filled by women, but only 21% of senior management roles are held by women globally. On corporate America’s Fortune 1000 list, just 4.5% of the CEOs are female, and the pay gap hovers at about 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. Similar patterns can be seen in the UK with only three women heading FTSE 100 firms and the overall gender pay gap stubbornly stuck at 18.6%.
Sandberg’s thesis in the book is simple – it’s easy to blame organisational culture, or family or even society for holding women back – but in reality there’s also an “internal voice” that tells women they are not capable of succeeding.
‘Lean In’ is neatly divided into chapters that discuss various tactics one can employ to get ahead. “It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder,” is a useful way of rethinking a career path not only for women, but men too. She urges ambitious people to take risks to succeed – and while risk-taking is important for getting ahead for both genders, she highlights, through personal experiences, that women tend to be risk-averse.
Similarly, she urges the ambitious to look for a career sponsor – someone who goes beyond just “career advice” and actually vouches for your career growth within an organisation. Again, crucial for both sexes, but she says women focus too much on “mentorship” rather than asking for sponsorship.
But what’s made this book an international phenomenon is having someone as prominent as Sandberg stepping up to address rather taboo topics. She goes right for the jugular in ‘Success and Likeability’, a chapter that says women are regarded unfavorably when they succeed: “When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is ‘not as well-liked by her peers.’” To this, Sandberg says the onus is on women as much as it’s on men to change the perception that female leaders are too aggressive. Specifically, women must confront their own power and stop trying to please everyone.
Another hot button topic is how women are expected to do it all – excel at the workplace and have a perfect home. She openly admits, unlike many other women in successful positions, that it’s impossible for women to ‘have it all’. Instead, she recommends giving up the notion of achieving “perfection” for what is “sustainable and fulfilling”.
I would recommend this book to women of all ages at various stages of their career. For young women planning their university education, the power of “leaning in” and “raising your hand” are skills that last an entire career. The earlier it becomes a habit, the better.
For entry and mid-level professional women, learning to sit at the table and feeling comfortable with asking for sponsorship is an important takeaway. For women who have already achieved a certain level of success, it’s probably a relief to know others feel like you.
Striving for perfection at home and work is an unattainable goal and it’s worth evaluating priorities. I can only hope that more men read the book too, because one thing ‘Lean in’ strongly emphasises is that this is not a one-sided conversation. Having both sexes “lean in” to find a change is the only way women will be encouraged and recognised as leaders.
(Listen to Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk on ‘Why we have too few women leaders’)
Ruchika Tulshyan is a financial reporter, with a specialised interest in covering women’s leadership. She has been published in Forbes, CNN, Time, Bloomberg and the Huffington Post, among others. Ruchika holds a Bachelor’s in political science and history from the London School of Economics and Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @rtulshyan.