Book Review: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

In her new book, Sandberg posits that women face both internal and external barriers in becoming leaders in the workplace. She provides examples of external obstacles where women are still underpaid and under-represented in leadership positions, such as the fact that women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men receive, women merely represent 21 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and hold only 18 percent of elected congressional seats. The reality, she asserts, is that in most industries women still lag men in terms of equal representation and compensation.

Sandberg argues that, in addition to external hurdles, women often internally hold themselves back professionally. One way this can occur, she suggests, is with women who want to have children. Concerns about the difficulty of balancing raising a family with a career can result in women passing on professional opportunities leading up to having children. Sandberg explains, “What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.” By not pursuing opportunities they otherwise would or by just backing off the career pedal leading up to starting a family, Sandberg argues that women can find themselves in jobs they do not like before taking leave to have a child. Since the job they left no longer appeals, many women do not want to return to it and may leave their careers altogether. 

She does not criticize women who want to raise their children full-time. Her message is for those women who otherwise would like to continue their careers. Sandberg’s assertion is the decisions that are made leading up to starting a family can incentivize or deter women from returning to their careers. This is one of many examples she uses to illustrate the internal struggle women face in balancing work and family.

Sandberg’s insights are valuable to both female and male professionals. Her book provides evidence that even with laws that are intended to prevent gender discrimination and a culture the purports to value men and women equally, men are still over-represented in executive corporate positions and women still lag their male colleagues in pay at the levels of jobs they do hold. For male business leaders this knowledge should raise awareness that obstacles continue to exist that result in women not being represented equally at all levels of an organization and that these barriers are at times institutional ones that could be removed if there is enough leadership desire to do so. That is the first step to moving toward parity—recognizing that it is not yet the reality. For female leaders, Lean In is rife with actionable, empowering strategies through which they can address disparity themselves. And for organizations as a whole, she provides a call to action to rectify the ongoing endemic barriers that perpetuate this problem. The fact that Sandberg is often referred to in the media as Facebook’s “female COO” instead of just its COO suggests being female and a COO is still somehow remarkable, thus necessitating the need for more work to be done on this issue.

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