Do women hold themselves back from corridors of power? My take on “Lean In”

It took several weeks of unusual summer rain in Atlanta and couple of days without phone, internet and cable, before I finished reading some of the books laying on my night stand for months.  One of them, Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg.

I was among many women who bought this book due to all the media hype, but didn’t read it immediately.  Mainly because there were so many articles, blogs, reviews, videos and TV interviews, that I felt I had already read the book.  But not true.  The promotional sound bites and all the controversy don’t do this book justice.  I must admit, reading her ‘acknowledgements’ section, which was as big as any chapter in the book, made me think that if I only had that much help with my book (or any help), I would end up with the same media coverage.  Envy aside, kudos to her and her team….I absolutely love her message and her courage to start this important dialogue, and believe her book is a must read for all women and men.  And here’s why…..

Sheryl Sandberg is the first woman who finally spoke up about internal barriers as much as external barriers that hold women back from reaching leadership positions.  It’s true.  Many women (not all) hold themselves back by lacking self-confidence through gender stereotype messages they hear and tend to believe throughout life….  by not raising their hands or sitting at the table…. and by pulling back when they should be leaning in (leaving before leaving).  Her TEDtalk speech with this main message reached over 550 million views.  In the book she goes further into complex challenges women face and adjustments/differences we can make ourselves: increasing self-confidence and closing the ambition gap, getting our partners to do more at home (Make Your Partner a Real Partner)… not holding ourselves to unattainable standards (The Myth of Doing It All)…. and of course my favorite–avoiding gender stereotypes (OK, she doesn’t have a chapter on this, but she references it allot and I’m personally all about this.)

All that sounds great, right?  I nodded my head in agreement most of the entire time and even laughed out loud quite a few times (it’s a witty, funny book).  So why all the controversy, and why are so many women so pissed off?  Sheryl may think it’s because success and likability are negatively correlated for women, by both women and men.  She has a chapter on this with great research no one can negate.  But I think there is more….I believe there are two main reasons at the core of the controversy and mixed responses by women about this important message:

First, many women don’t face these internal barriers, depending on cultural and family backgrounds, but face complex external barriers that hold them back.  It’s important to read this book without reaching any conclusions, because her argument does not negate external barriers, but pushes everyone to get rid of internal barriers critical to gaining power and success.  She poses this as the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation.  The chicken: women will tear down the external institutional barriers once we achieve leadership roles and make sure we level the playing field (one can shoot holes all over this with research too.)  The egg: we need to eliminate the external institutional barrier to get women into those roles in the first place.  Both valid, she encourages women that instead of debating over which comes first, to focus on the chicken and our own internal barriers.  It’s a brave move and rarely discussed.  Problem is, without reading the book, some think she is attacking the victim.  That is not true at all, but perhaps her marketing team have not done a good job balancing her promotional/media messages to include both, as she has done in her book, without alienating those women who truly know how to “lean in” but face institutional barriers.  Even those women can really benefit from her message of unconscious gender bias and stereotypes that women face ourselves, and against one another.

Second, and more importantly, I think people in general (men and women) have a harder time relating to those who have not been through similar experiences and hardships.  Overcoming severe adversities is a common thread among greatest leaders….one that entices people to listen, relate, learn and follow.  And Sheryl has not been through much other than difficult child labor and long work hours.  No one should ever hold that against her and the important message she is sending out to The New World Marketplace.  But this lack of common woman reliability goes far beyond a correlation analysis of success and likability.  We all love–regardless of gender, age and culture–heroins who rise from ashes like the Phoenix, overcoming adversities and helping others.

With all that said, I give “Lean In” a big thumbs up.  But I’d only re-write Time’s headline, “don’t hate her because she is successful,” and say, read this book regardless of how relatively easy success came to the writer, because the message is excellent, prevalent and important for all women and men cross-generationally.  Bravo Sheryl.

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1 Response

  1. Susan Hitchcock

    I absolutely agree with your assessment of Sandberg’s book and the fact that many have been turned off without reading her book for themselves. Sometimes we / women are so passionate about our own experience that we don’t want to listen to other perspectives. Let’s face it, we can take things rather personally and can be rather critical of other points of view. For me, the different experience and insights from women who have “made it” are always worth listening to. Personally I accept responsibility for putting some obstacles in my own career path, while I’m certainly aware that many organizations don’t work hard enough to support the development and advancement of their female talent. But for all the buzz and the blitz about “leaning in” – I see the discussion and debate as a good thing. I commend Sandberg for what I beleive she’s trying to do and I don’t have to agree with her or anyone else to value their perspective.

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