Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’

In this series, we will be reviewing books across a wide range of genres, all related in some form to championing women.  


Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In book cover
‘Lean In’ book cover. Source: Bookquotemonster

The fact that I have read ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg twice already is a testament to what a great read it is, and I will admit that there is a high likelihood that I will read it a third time in the next few years. Why? Three reasons. Firstly, there is a wealth of practical advice which any woman can apply in her career. Secondly, because it is well written and an absolute joy to read, and thirdly – and maybe most importantly – because it is so well researched that it is thoroughly engaging and genuinely interesting to learn from. There are a myriad of opinionated books on success available out there, and it is refreshing to finally come across one backed up with credible and meaningful facts. In fact, the references make up a staggering fifth of the entire book!

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg reflects on her own experience of working in some of the world’s most successful businesses including Google and Facebook. She addresses both women and men equally throughout and has some refreshing view points on how to deal with challenges that many women will recognise as they read the book. She makes it clear all along that she believes that the world would be a better place if half our companies and countries were run by women and half our homes were run by men; and I couldn’t agree more.

Upon the book’s release, there was some skepticism regarding Sheryl’s viewpoint on the work and family life balance as people assumed that she was egging women to push ahead with their careers despite having young children, and that she was unrelatable to the everyday woman. With three out of the eleven chapters dedicated to work/family balance, this book illustrates her sensitivity to the matter and actually showcases her understanding of the pull of mothering on one side, and a difficult job on the other side. She comes across as compassionate, funny, honest and likeable with her down-to-earth approach, admitting her own failings and self-doubts.

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook
Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. Source: The Daily Beast

The majority of the book offers practical advice about how women can take charge of their own careers, particularly when up against gender bias which is still so prevalent today. I have summarised below my favourite 4 practical chapters.

1 – Sit at the table.

Sheryl highlights that one of the key reasons why women are held back is due to ourselves – that we “face a battle from within”. Whether it is choosing to sit at the sidelines instead of at the table, failing to raise our hand, having the feeling of being a fraud, the common self-doubt we suffer from, or the distinct difference between men and women when it comes to attributing their success and explaining their failure.

2 – It’s a jungle gym not a ladder.

Sheryl challenges the common metaphor of the ladder when describing the career climb, she positions it as irrelevant to most workers and encourages the reader to see the climb to success from another perspective.  The quote, “It’s a jungle gym not a ladder'” actually comes from Lori, Marketing Director at eBay. Sheryl pulls upon her own life experience and progression to where she is today to give practical advice to women who are looking for that next promotion or career jump. Again, she challenges women to shift their thinking from ‘I am not ready for that’ to ‘I will learn by doing it and taking more risks.’

3- Don’t leave before you leave.

Of all the ways women hold themselves back, Sheryl identifies the most pervasive as being “they leave before they leave”. It is rarely one big decision to leave the workforce, but rather a lot of little decisions to accommodate and sacrifice along the way towards having a family, which is hardly surprising when girls at an early age get the message that they will have to choose between either succeeding at work or being a good mother. Sheryl gives the analogy of a career being like a marathon, where both men and women arrive at the starting line equally, running side by side with the male runners hearing the cheers of, “looking strong, on your way!” whereas the female runners hear, “you know you don’t have to do this, good start, but you probably won’t want to finish… Why are you running when your children need you at home?”

4- The myth of doing it all.

The greatest trap ever set for women, according to Sheryl, is “having it all.” For those who claim they have it all are “lying”, she says. The chapter also draws upon Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossy Pants, in which Fey says the worst question a woman can get asked is: “How do you juggle it all?… with an accusatory look in their eyes. You’re fucking it all up aren’t you?” This chapter made me laugh out loud several times with the confessions of one particular lady putting her kids to bed with their school clothes on to save 15 minutes in the morning, as well as Sheryl’s personal account of having a child with head lice on a corporate plane. The practical advice in this chapter is truly valuable to any woman trying to juggle both career and family life, covering how to deal with guilt management, setting limits and sticking to them, and instead of asking, ‘Can I do it all?’ asking, ‘Can I do what is most important for me and my family?’ instead.

Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of 'TIME' in 2013
Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of ‘TIME’ in 2013. Source: TIME

My favourite chapter was ‘Make Your Partner A Real Partner’ as this really resonated with me. I felt really compelled after reading it to tell more ambitious women to make better choices and consider these points before deciding, ‘he is the one’. Of the 28 women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 26 were married and said that they, “could not have succeeded without the support of their husbands, helping with the children, the household chores and a willingness to move”.

“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.”

At the end of any good book I always feel slightly disappointed that the journey I went on when reading it is now over. However, when I got to the end of this particular book I discovered that this was, “just the beginning and not the end”, as Sheryl invites the readers to join the online community, in which they can even create their own ‘Lean In Circle’ and support network for women – and men.

I will hold on to this book for a while longer and hope to pass it on to the daughter I am hoping I will have one day.

The stats

Pages: 173.

Time it took me to read it: 4 hours 20 minutes.

Why I picked up the book in the first place: I watched the 2010 TED talk called, ‘Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders’. There was such an overwhelming response from viewers that Sheryl was inspired to write this book.

Don’t judge a book by its cover: This book is for women of all ages, young women thinking about their future, mothers thinking about re-entering the workforce and really just anyone of any gender who wants to take on a leadership role. It is for every woman (especially) who is determined to make it to the top of her industry or has any goal in mind; and for any partner who wants to do their part to support it. The best thing about this book and what sets it apart from others is the real practical advice within the pages, which is so valuable and powerful. 

Rating out of 5: 5.

Where to get it cheapest: (hard copy, not including delivery) Amazon.

The woman behind the book

If you have never heard of Sheryl Sandberg before then this bit of background will set you up nicely before reading the book.

Sheryl is the COO of Facebook and is an activist and the founder of the foundation. She was the first woman to become elected to the board of directors at Facebook. She attended Harvard Business School and earned an MBA with the highest distinction. While at Harvard, Sandberg founded a group initiative called, ‘Women in Economics and Government.’

Her second marriage was to Dave Goldberg, then an executive to Yahoo and who later became the CEO of Survey Monkey. He tragically died in 2015 and was someone who Sheryl described as her best friend, closest advisor, the love of her life and the key to her success due to his support at each step.

Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the World Economic Forum
Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the World Economic Forum. Source: Forbes.

Sheryl has been named one of the 50 most powerful women in business by Fortune Magazine. She sponsored the controversial campaign ‘Ban Bossy‘, which criticised the use of the word “bossy” to describe assertive girls and women, stating that the word is “stigmatising” and may discourage women from seeking positions of leadership.

Written by Rebecca Gache-Ford, Founder of Fanny Pack

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