Lean In – Book Review

I generally tend to steer clear of books which fall in the category of inspiring reads…they either come across to me as too pompous or extremely prescriptive and hence boring. And so, while Lean In had been on my reading list since it released, I never got around to reading it until last month.

Lean In begins with an anecdote from when Sheryl Sandberg worked in Google and was pregnant. She recounts how one day, having to park the car quite far from the entrance, she with her increased weight and severe morning sickness had to literally sprint through the entire parking to make it in time for a meeting making her ‘nausea worse, and I arrived at the meeting praying that a sales pitch was the only thing that would come out of my mouth’. Encouraged by her husband she went up to Google Founder Sergey Brin’s office to ask for a pregnancy parking for herself and other women employees …to which he readily agreed ‘noting that he had never thought about it before’ Bang…within the first page she successfully manages to establish why we need more women to Lean In at work so we have more women in leadership roles…

Sandberg goes on to talk about issues all women at some time or the other during college or at work would have experienced. She talks about how gender stereotypes that women are subjected to, at home, school or even at a retail store with T-shirts calling out ‘Smart Like Daddy’ and ‘Pretty Like Mommy’, influences the career decisions that women make.

Heidi Vs Howard

Sandberg here talks about an interesting experiment where a case study was circulated to two groups of students about the same person, while both the case studies had completely identical content, the professor had changed the name Heidi to Howard for one of the groups. And guess what were the results? Well for the same attributes for which the class upheld Howard, they pulled Heidi down. Haven’t we all experienced it at work? While male leaders are termed, ambitious, go getter, women mostly get slotted as arrogant, aggressive….no wonder women hold themselves back…likeability in exchange for lofty career goals.

Family Vs Career?…Maybe not…

Sandberg addresses a common mistake that women generally tend to make, maybe even sub consciously at times, okay…most of the times! She urges ‘Don’t leave before you Leave’; Sandberg argues that women tend to let go of opportunities at work because they feel those would not fit in with their family plans in the future. Contrary to the argument that when interviewing women, one should not ask questions around her family plan, Sandberg emphasises that one must, not to use that as a reason not to hire but, to let deserving candidates know that they need not limit their options unnecessarily. She reveals that in most cases, women, she has asked this question to, have been rather grateful for a chance to discuss the subject.

Are you an Impostor?

I must at this point also talk about a recent incident at work before I talk about a very important realisation that the book helped me with. Recently a survey at work revealed that women in the team had rated themselves lower on certain parameters, on which they were in fact rated highly by their supervisors…the opposite however was the case with men. And why am I talking about it? Well because Sandberg painstakingly attempts to explain this very phenomenon, which she calls the impostor syndrome’the beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I am a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’am a fraud’ Hence while men would credit their own innate qualities and skills for their success, women are most likely to credit their Hard work, luck, help from others instead.

And with this Sandberg hits upon a crucial point, the fact that while there are many external factors which might limit a woman’s career, it’s also the internal barriers that come from years of conditioning that prevent women from…like she puts it ‘sitting at the table’.

Biggest Career Decision? Choosing the right job? Nah!!!

She then goes on to address one of the biggest impediments in women’s careers, domestic responsibilities. She points out that while more and more women are trying to Lean In at work, less and less men are Leaning In at home. This obviously creates a disbalance. A lot of times women are not left with enough choice between raising a child and keeping a home and working. As a working mother, this is one aspect that I have experienced and tried overcoming to a great extent by having my husband pick up a good share of the former if not equal. And so, I could not resist from nodding my head vigorously when Sandberg mentions that who we choose to marry is probably the biggest career decisions we make!

I had not long back written a short piece on it called the ‘Curious Case of the missing working Dads’, in case you are interested…you can read it here – https://incrediblewomenofindia.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/working-dads/

What really helps is how Sandberg uses examples from her life to talk about each of the aspects above. There were so many instances where I could recall a similar incident from work or college and I tried comparing how we both reacted. The book hence turned out to be more than just a read. The fact that Sandberg doesn’t stop at just discussing issues but also tries to find out ways to overcome it, makes it an effective read.  For example, she doesn’t tell you to ‘Sit at the table’…we all not know that! Don’t we? what she does instead is to help you identify reasons, why you aren’t sitting at the table so you make a conscious decision to overcome it.

Like, in her Chapter on Mentorship/networking…She says that it might be difficult for you to find a mentor if you are looking at it formally…a person who says he/she will mentor you and follow a schedule to do that.  Rather one should keep learning all the time, leverage leaders, colleagues a work, or outside to talk about specific problems and how to solve for it. That’s what this book is about…it isn’t a prescriptive, 10 things to do for success…but rather an attempt to analyse reasons and how they can be overcome.

Her writing is simple, yet fluid and crisp. It is very well structured and hence feels like you are reading a story thus keeping you invested. The fact that she uses umpteen real-life examples with real names thrown around, makes for an extremely engaging read, apart from being effective.

I truly regret not having read this book when it came out. That was the year my son was born and I did make some choices, more out if anticipation instead of need/urgency, which could have played a role in slowing me down a bit. I might have even come close to taking a sabbatical, which, thank god, I did not.

There is a lot to ponder and reflect upon and I hope all women/Leaders would read this before making a career limiting move, because at time while we term it a choice, it mostly stems from it being the only choice available to us, but is it? May be not…hence it’s important for Organisations to be open for women to fearlessly discuss about their career choices in the wake of marriage/children without being judged or looked over for an opportunity.

But the biggest lesson that Sandberg leaves me with is ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid’….

An absolute must read this one!

**********************************************************************************

Sandberg has been doing a lot of work in the field of Gender Equality through her Lean In foundation which encourages women to come together as a community, connect, share, mentor and learn from each other to achieve their career goals

You can visit the website here – www.leanin.org

You can also join my Lean In Circle for Women in corporate, to take the conversation further, here –  https://leanin.org/circles/women-in-corporate

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