Thoughts (personal and professional) on Sandberg’s New Book, Lean In

I’m not one for book reviews in general, but I chased down an early preview of the Lean In book from Sandberg’s publisher so I could have a perspective on it, before it released. I have two. One is my professional take, and one is more personal. Let me share both, below.


3 Reasons Men Should Read LeanIn

You might have noticed that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has a new book out. Lean In builds on her TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” which has been seen over 2,000,000 times and launched a national conversation among women.

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - Sheryl Sandberg, ...
DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 – Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook, USA; Young Global Leader are captured during the session ‘Handling Hyper-connectivity’ at the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 28, 2011. Copyright by World Economic Forum by Jolanda Flubacher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No doubt, her book will be devoured and discussed by women. But if that’s all that happens, it will be a disservice to our organizations.

The truth is, men still hold the lion’s share of power. Sandberg shares stats that many women know almost by heart — but men may not. Women hold just 20% of seats in parliaments globally, 18% in the US Congress. Women have been at least 50% of college graduates in the US since the early 1980’s, yet the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the past decade. Just 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, a measly 4%. Women hold just 16% of board seats, and women of color hold a tiny 3% of board seats.

Sandberg could have also mentioned that women represent less than 20% of speaker and panel spots that help confer recognition as experts in their field, or that women receive less than 3% of venture capital funding. Or that even in movie crowd scenes meant to depict “the general population”, the film industry shows only 17% of crowds as female, compared with the 51% that they actually are. Women are seemingly invisible. Without visibility, consideration is absent, opportunity is lost, and access is denied.

When I ask men how to solve this gender imbalance, they often say that the problem will take care of itself when there are more qualified candidates. But this view often hides a circular argument. How will we know when more women are qualified? When more women hold those roles! Or when those men know of more women who can hold the role. This logic might work if one could magically ensure that gender selection bias does not exist. But there is ample evidence for precisely the opposite. Gender bias exists, and both men and women are affected by it (yes, you read that right, even women can be sexist!). We are not talking about equality of outcomes here; the results show bias thwarts equality of opportunity.

I see three major reasons every manager, whether male or female, should read Lean In, and this is the first: increasing your awareness of the paradoxes facing women. One of the most illuminating sections of Sandberg’s book is her discussion of the famous Heidi / Howard study done at Harvard Business School. Professors asked students to read a case based on Heidi Roizen, a well-known venture capitalist in Silicon Valley (disclosure: she’s a friend). They assigned half of the students to read the story of Heidi, half to read a version of the case where the name had been changed to Howard. Students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, which made sense since their accomplishments were identical. But they regarded Howard as a more appealing colleague while seeing Heidi as selfish and “not the type of person you’d want to hire or work for.” This points to one of six common binds women face, which is that women are either perceived as either competent or liked, but not both. Similarly, a few years ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece called “A Rant Against Women” in which he claimed that women were not being pushy enough to get his attention. Yet research shows that women who sing their own praises get penalized in society by both men and women and that women are culturally discouraged from self-promotion. When we know the research, we start to eliminate these kinds of Catch-22s from our thinking.

Knowing the research can help us acknowledge that all people have subconscious biases. Once you acknowledge that, you enable yourself to begin consciously filtering in more women, rather than unconsciously filtering them out — the second reason all leaders should read this book. You reduce the impact of your own biases by consciously changing what you expose yourself to. Whether you are a man or a woman, the odds are that you give credence to men more than women. That’s not because smart expert women don’t exist as leaders, business experts, or board members. But we tend to follow the people we already know, the ones we’re already comfortable with, and especially those already proven “worthy” — which as the data above suggests, is incredibly slanted towards men. But by being intentional about including women, (beyond the few you know by first name — Caterina, Sheryl, Marissa, Ann-Marie, Hillary, etc.) you will naturally start seeing a fuller set of ideas, and considering more women as leaders, speakers, board members, and so on.

The truth is this: There are tons of qualified women for whatever position you’re trying to fill. They’re just invisible to you right now. For example, recently an HBR blogger posted “11 Books Every Young Leader Must Read” — a list that did not include a single work by a woman. I’m sure he did not intentionally exclude women like Linda Hill, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ellen Langer, or Carol Dweck. But he did. So as a follow-up, Whitney Johnson countered with a more diverse list. It’s not a question of lowering standards — the books on Whitney’s list were all equally well-regarded — just having the consciousness to notice that you’ve inadvertently ignored half the talent.

So here’s one immediate action item: Go on Twitter, and ask others, “Point me to 5 thinkers (who happen to be women) who I should be paying attention to. I want to #changetheratio”. Don’t assume talented women for any role don’t exist; assume they do — and get help finding them.

This brings me to the third reason I think all managers need to hear the message in Lean In. While I certainly see the value in helping women understand how to raise their own visibility by “leaning in,” we won’t unlock the economic potential of female talent and ideas until we change our systems. If your system of finding people to hire, speakers for your stage, or members for your board depends on having them step forward and ask, you’ve effectively institutionalized a bias. Knowing key facts, such as those Sandberg lays out, may help. For example: Research shows that men apply for jobs for which they have 60% of the stated qualifications while women demur unless they have 100%. Sure, we can ask women to have more chutzpah. But we can also redesign our hiring approach. The most famous example of this is probably the shift to blind auditions for new symphony musicians. In the 1970s and 1980s, most orchestras began to place a screen in front of candidates during the audition, so that judges would not know the gender of the musician. (Some savvy women also removed their high heels to avoid the telling “clickety clack” of female footwear.) As a result, while some bias still exists, women went from being 5% of all players in 1970 to being 25% of the orchestra by 1997. This result wasn’t because female musicians “leaned in,” but because hiring managers — many of them male — changed the system to prevent qualified candidates from being filtered out.

I’d like to leave you with this call to action: make this your problem. Don’t leave it to women to create change all by themselves. We needed white people to help pass civil rights laws that helped blacks; we need straights to help fight for rights for gays. And we need men to help fight for equal opportunities for women. Find a way to act. For example, pledge to phase out all-male panels at conferences. Or, if you see boards made up of only men, speak up — because companies with more than one woman on their board have performed 26% better than those with no female directors.

Women will not be able to undo debilitating, ingrained cultural biases on their own. And there’s no reason why they should have to. This isn’t just their problem. This is an economic problem. We need the talent of all our people — to bring that which only they can bring — to solve old problems with new ideas or, to come up with entirely new solutions. This will not happen if we leave a huge swath of talent out of the boardroom — and out of our benefit.

You can contribute to this article and the comments (I’m sure it’ll be wild) here: on in long form:


 Why Did Sandberg’s Book Rile So Many Women?

To the women who have “leaned in” all our lives, Sheryl Sandberg’s book riles us. The chatter goes something like this: we already raise hand at opportunities, understand our worth (and negotiate for it), and strive for equality with our partners…and so asking any of us to “lean in” more seems like you’re just asking us to do the impossible: work harder.

I’m not sure how much of my personal story you know. So a quick narrative of it: I had to leave my family in order to get an education because of my gender. That led to 2nd tier schools based I worked to fund college. My first job at Apple was as an admin, later doing research and then pricing. I raised my hand at nearly every opportunity, finding creative solutions to problems other people deemed impossible. One project I took on (when no one else wanted it, I later learned) led to the creation of a channel program that grew a nascent business at Apple from $2M to $180M, with 50% profitability, in 18 months. That led to a startup opportunity, in the early days of the web, that Adobe acquired. Shortly thereafter, I was running a major part of a Fortune 500 by age 29. From there, I’ve started my own business and bootstrapped it because financing to women is less than 3% of all venture funding.  Nonetheless, even without any outside capital, the business did amazingly well, growing to be a multi-million dollar and well-respected enterprise that got me, then CEO, featured in the Wall Street Journal. Nowadays, I lecture at some amazing institutions, my latest book was published by Harvard and became a best seller, and am getting more recognized for my talent to have a business thrive in the Social Era. My first marriage failed miserably, but I certainly do consider my 2nd (and last) husband to be a great partner. I would not be where I am without him. While I still have some unattained professional goals — I would like to be on 1 or 2 Fortune 500 Boards given my expertise in business strategy, reinvention, and complex organizations — it has not happened, yet. In the meantime, I serve on both (smaller) public and private boards today, loving it.

In short… In spite of many professional and personal challenges, I didn’t give up, or using Sandberg’s terminology, I have leaned in, hard.

Yet, when I heard of Sandberg’s book, I didn’t want to read it; I didn’t want to support it. I thought it was demanding women to do more. It brought up guilt by some who look back at their own career-navigating mistakes with regret. I personally thought if I lean in anymore, I’m gonna crack wide open, from the force field pressure. The CEO of Get Satisfaction – a business that helps enterprises handle customer support through social interaction – Wendy Lea apparently felt the same way. On her FB page, she wrote, “If I lean in anymore, I’ll just fall over. I’m not kidding.”
The worry was that we were being asked to do more than just work harder. We thought that we were being blamed – that we alone are responsible for things we cannot control, and somehow it’s up to us to address societal and cultural issues that limit women not because of who we uniquely are, but by what we are not (men).

But the worries were unfounded. Early reviews of the book in the NYT and so on were certainly headline-worthy getting but not reflecting the full range of this book’s content. This book is not about blame or asking any of us to simply do more. Just today, I’ve published a researched piece over at Harvard on why I think this book should be ready by both women, and men.

Sandberg has written an incredibly thoughtful and well researched book that addresses social and policy barriers that stop women’s advancement. Now the key is to get people to read it. Really read it. And understand what role everyone one of us –men and women can do to address this. Sure, women need to lean-in. And I will personally buy it for many. If I could go back in time, I’d have it stapled to my 20-year-old forehead. It advances the cause of gender equity in two ways: By asking women to step into their fullest selves and not hold back because of the fear that they’ll be rejected. More importantly, it also will help us have a more valid debate about creating real viable change — by sharing facts that can help us have a different conversation about what is limiting our workforce, and specifically limiting our ability to have everyone count in a meaningful way.

This gender equity issue is more than a woman problem. This is an economic problem. We need the talent of all our people – to bring that which only they can bring – to solve old problems with new ideas or to come up with entirely new solutions. This will not happen until we collectively decide we will lean into this issue.

You can comment on this more personal take over here, in my Linked In column area


As always, I welcome your take/opinion/action plans. I’ll be offline very shortly and so I might not get to it till end of week but hopefully this is the start of an interesting conversation… and change. Much needed change.

3 Replies

  1. Hi Nilofer-

    Your HBR post was useful and important (and great to share), but it’s the personal addendum here that really brings the points home.

    I had a similar pre-emptive reaction to some of the pr surrounding LeanIn’s launch, and I was pre-convinced that Sandberg’s book was going to be too much from a privileged perspective. Thankfully, that turned out not to be as much of an issue.

    One issue that remains, though, is that for those of us who’ve leaned in, stepped out, leaned back, spoken up, and pushed hard, being told to lean in some more just doesn’t add value. Then again, maybe LeanIn is more for women who are earlier in their careers and who are still making critical decisions.

    I had my own Sandbergian aha moment, with some strong emotion and reflection, when she made what sounded like an off-hand remark on an HBS reunion panel. Looking back I can see that she was sending up trial balloons about how to shape her message. I wrote about that here:

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Yes, the book isn’t written for us who have “leaned in” and actually know her stats by heart. I realized that was my biggest disappointment but I needed to get over that. Maybe that’s her follow-on book? Or yours?

  2. I haven’t read Stanberg’s book. I have read your’s Nilofer.

    As a male, I understand Stanberg’s point. I get “leaning in” as a strategy. It is a strategy that many women and a lot of men need to take as well, because so many don’t enter the workforce with the advantages that others have. It isn’t just working hard, but having a strategy build upon one’s strengths and sense of purpose in life.

    As a consultant for almost two decades, what I see is that many businesses are designed not to elevate and empower talent where it exists. These organizational cultures seek homogeneity, not diversity. Yet, it is difference which gives a business its capacity to adapt to changing times.

    While we need cultural and systems change in businesses, we also need to find a way for men and women to better value each other. This is a human problem, more than it is a business one.

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