Book review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Cover of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.

This book is wonderful. Lean In is by a successful woman who wants to help other women succeed in business. It does not cover every aspect of gender inequality, nor does it pretend to. As the subtitle sets out, it talks about ‘women, work, and the will to lead’, and it does so with authority, insight and research.

Getting off on the right foot

There has been some criticism of Sandberg for speaking from a position of moneyed privilege and addressing only well-educated, equally fortunate women. Let me address this, as Sandberg herself does, right at the beginning. She acknowledges the position that she writes from, but also explains that she aims to offer advice that would have been useful to her at any point of her career and that will help women ‘lean in’ no matter what their ambition, or what stage of life they are at.

While I believe that increasing the number of women in positions of power is a necessary element of true equality, I do not believe that there is one definition of success or happiness.

What are we talking about?

Lean In addresses both the external and internal barriers that hold women back in their professional careers and Sandberg cites numerous studies to back up her observations and suggestions. She explains the cultural assumptions and messages that are embedded from a young age that cause women to shy away from ambition and leadership.

How individuals view what they can and should accomplish is in large part formed by our societal expectations.

Equally, she explains how expectations around the traditional male role means that the work men do in child rearing and in the home is not valued as highly as professional achievements. This creates a stigma and feeling of failure for men who try to buck the trend and contribute their fair share to the running of the household.

Letting yourself lead

Sandberg gives numerous personal experiences, as well as tales of people she knows in order keep her arguments and suggestions grounded in the real world. For me at least there were continual lightbulbs of recognition in terms of treatment I have received and behaviour I have displayed, the root cause of which has been deeply culturally ingrained messages of gender inequality.

Of course, Sandberg does not suggest that simply pointing barriers out will make it easy to overcome them, but openly talking about them and acknowledging their destructive capabilities is certainly the first step towards change. She provides reassurance that you won’t immediately get fired for asking for help, or be viewed as lazy for controlling your hours in order to manage your home life. This book provides support.

Reminding us of reality

  • Powerful women are likeable.
  • Advocating for yourself is the only way to get noticed. Hard work and diligence alone won’t do it.
  • It’s impossible to get everyone to like you, and trying will hold you back.
  • Honesty is the best policy. Speak up and give feedback and ask for it in return.
  • Feminist is not a dirty word, it is, as Sandberg puts it, ‘a distinguished label.’

A manifesto for men and women alike

Everyone, men and women, managers through to interns, should read this book. It is not fiercely academic or intimidatingly intellectual. Instead it is grown up, powerful, human and extremely important. I know I will be returning to it for reassurance and reminders for years to come. It communicates what has been felt in silence for years and it does so with wit and clarity. It is good business writing.

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  1. Done is better than perfect | Bad Language - February 11, 2014

    […] These words are engraved in the gatehouse at Dartington Hall, near where I grew up. They made a big impression on me and I remembered them last week when I read about Facebook’s motto ‘Done is better than perfect’ in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. […]

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