Lean In

Lean In

I read the reviews of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, many pretty scathing, before I read the actual book. I’m glad I reserved judgement and urge you to do the same. Yes, many of the critiques are fair ones, but it is full of interesting facts and good advice, and, more importantly, it seems to have started something. There seems to be a growing movement and an apparent new willingness to talk about these issues within (American) workplaces. And that’s a really good thing.

A lot of the tips I picked up were ones I’ve inadvertently been trying to use in my own career to date:
  • Not being too scared to try
  • Accepting uncertainty and embracing it
  • Not worrying about going sideways or backwards careerwise if its a chance to learn new skills
  • Seeking out diverse experiences (as it’s useful preparation for leadership)
  • Not thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ and instead thinking ‘I want to do that and I’ll learn by doing it’

The last one is especially important given research which shows women only apply for jobs if they meet 100% of the criteria, whilst men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements. She argues that:


‘Taking risks, choosing growth, challenging ourselves and asking for promotions are all important elements of managing a career’.


I also enjoyed reading parts of the book that discussed the importance of bringing our whole selves to work – not having a professional self Monday to Friday and a real self for the rest of the time. I have to say I struggle with this one, but she argues that being willing to discuss emotions makes us better managers and peers. I certainly agree that it’s a shame that we’ve become too scared to have open conversations that acknowledge how personal circumstances and starting families affect decisions about careers.


Another part of the book that struck a chord with me was something that I’ve long being telling my female friends since doing 10 years of research on women and work – you need to measure the cost of childcare against your future earnings not your current ones. Yes you may work for free for a few years (which is awful), but if you leave the workforce all together you are likely to never make it back to anything like the level you were at before. So short term pain is definitely worth it for long term gain.


Whilst she acknowledges that, counterintuitively, success at work does not come by meeting every demand placed on us, but by setting limits and sticking to them, it’s sad to read the lengths she went to to hide leaving on time. It’s also crazy that the US thinks so little holiday is normal, but it’s equally sad that in this country too seniority normally means it’s increasingly unacceptable to have a weekend or a holiday uninterrupted by work emails.


Work life balance shouldn’t mean going home to put your children to bed and then getting straight back to work once they’re asleep. This is held up by Sheryl Sandberg as a good thing, and I know it is here too from friends who work in city law firms and were told how great this type of ‘work-life balance’ was from senior women as part of their induction. We all really need to get over cultures of presenteeism and reward outcomes instead.


For me, one of those most powerful statements in the book was:


I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully – and I mean fully – supportive of her career. No exceptions.

Let’s face it, if we’re to get more equality in the workplace we also need equality at home. And anyway equality between partners leads to happier relationships. As Sheryl Sandberg says, as more women lean in to their careers, more men need to lean in to their families. I love the quote she cites by Madeline Albright that: ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’. I completely agree. But let’s make sure both men and women keep striving for equality both at work and at home.