Overcoming Barriers
Lean In

Overcoming Barriers

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offers her sometimes controversial and all-time best-selling thoughts about women in the workplace.

The uproar surrounding Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book about women in the workplace began even before it was released. Women in the workplace was the topic of her popular 2010 TED Talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” which garnered more than six million views. Perhaps anticipating criticism, Sandberg includes disclaimers acknowledging that not all women share her advantages, her ambition or her idea of success.

Lean In is an international bestseller, and an Amazon best book of the month. It gained breathless reviews from thoughtful sources. Oprah Winfrey called it, “Honest and brave…the new manifesto for women in the workplace.” Anna Holmes, writing in The New Yorker, said, “Many, many women, young and old, elite and otherwise, will find it prescriptive, refreshing and perhaps even revolutionary.”

Two books offering parallel ideas, philosophies and inspiration are Dare To Lead by Brené Brown and How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen.

Before and After 

Those who may have envied Sandberg at the time of this book’s publication in 2013 perhaps found compassion for her in 2015 when her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly. She has since spoken of how she coped with this loss by refocusing on her children and her work. She discussed recovering from this trauma in her second book, Option B, co-authored with Adam Grant.

When the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it.Sheryl Sandberg

A Harvard graduate, Sandberg worked for her mentor, professor Lawrence Summers, at the World Bank and then – after she earned an MBA and spent a year with McKinsey – as his chief of staff when he was US Treasury secretary. She was Google’s vice president of global online sales and operations before becoming chief operating officer at Facebook.

The role of women in the workplace is an emotional topic. It plucks sensitive nerves, such as the tension between working and stay-at-home moms; the career penalties women pay for devoting time to their families; sexism in the workplace; and corporate denial that child-rearing pressures limit women’s choices. These complexities underscore Sandberg’s assertions: The scarcity of females in the highest ranks of leadership places the few women who achieve positions of power under intense scrutiny, turning them into spokeswomen for their entire gender, whether they want that role or not. Sandberg confesses she was hesitant to speak about gender issues because she dreaded the inevitable, unforgiving spotlight.

The Leadership Ladder

Sandberg’s assertions about the dearth of women in high leadership positions is indisputable. In 2007, for example, women held slightly less than 17% of seats on US corporate boards of directors, and a similarly low percentage of female managers made it to the executive level. When Sandberg’s book first came out, women held only 18% of the seats in the US Congress. 

There is a saying: ‘Think globally, act locally.’ When negotiating, ‘Think personally, act communally.Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg identifies and explores the obstacles that keep women out of the executive suite. Her observations are not particularly divisive, and veteran women’s rights activists would not find them particularly revolutionary. She explains that the conditions that thwart women’s rise to the top still prevail and aren’t improving. Women face overt and covert discrimination, sexism and harassment. The lack of options for child care often forces them to choose between their families and their careers. Sandberg points out that women have a more difficult time than men finding mentors and must work harder than men to earn the same recognition.

Your Own Progress?

Sandberg warns of the self-created barriers women erect, but emphasizes she erected them, too. In general, she writes, women lack self-confidence and underestimate their value. They’re reluctant, Sandberg argues, to self-promote and negotiate for themselves. Their desire to be liked, the author explains, hampers their authority. Sandberg urges women to lean in and speak up, but she makes it clear that female executives who defy the norms pay a steep price. 

She promotes the equal distribution of labor in the home, and says that she noticed a common phenomenon among female employees who planned to start families: They “leaned back,” by refusing promotions or rejecting additional job responsibilities. Sandberg says flat out that when it’s time to leave, leave; but until then, engage fully.

What She Didn’t Say

Sandberg’s advice about fighting internal barriers is cogent, though much of it could come from any informed, feminist social scientist. Yet she doesn’t mention the benefits that firms accrue when they add women executives and women workers.

The good news is that men in younger generations appear more eager to be real partners than men in previous generations.Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg’s engaging personal anecdotes are resonant and relevant to the lives of many working women, especially those who also are raising families. As even Sandberg’s critics would admit, her book is, at the least, a much-needed conversation starter. 

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