I was fortunate last week to spend four straight days of focus on women in business and education. One of the highlights was getting to hear Sheryl Sandberg talk about “Lean In.” I had just finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago – most of the material in her talk came straight out of the book but it was nice to hear it directly.
My takeaway is this – the messages in the book are truly important for both women and men to hear. They are well researched and presented with personal examples which makes the book enjoyable to read.
The messages that I found most significant that I wanted to reiterate are these:
1. Be cognizant of the negative images presented of working mothers in the media. After all, it’s not a very interesting story to talk about how people are functioning well. The vast majority of working mothers are portrayed negatively – either as having no personal life or as “always harried and guilt ridden think Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know how She Does It” (p.23). Women are surrounded by headlines warning them that they can’t do it all, even though the data actually contradicts this – “Employed women reap rewards including greater financial security, more stable marriages, better health, and, in general, increased life satisfaction” (p.24).
Reminding ourselves that there is tremendous bias in this portrayal and noticing the role models who are thriving can help us aspire to the same. As parents we can point them out to our children and remind our friends and colleagues. These societally driven negative perceptions will be self-fulfilling prophecies if we don’t guard against them.
2. Multiple research studies show that women underestimate themselves and society underestimates them. When women underestimate themselves and when they attribute their success not to themselves but to others or luck (a related tendency) they, not surprisingly, do not aspire as high. Our culture and the media confirmation perpetuates this.
Awareness of this self talk, boosting our female colleagues, friends and family and debunking unfair reviews by media and others are important to balance this tendency. Keeping these biases in mind, women can ask themselves are they not applying for or accepting the promotion due to unsubstantiated insecurities? Similarly, as managers we may need to seek out women and suggest they consider expanded roles, and certainly not hold it against them if they don’t apply as readily.
3. Sandberg describes the success/likeability double standard that pervades our culture. The research clearly shows that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women” (p.40). Women are intuitive enough to sense this double standard and either consciously or unconsciously hold themselves back. I’ve seen devastating consequences of this double standard for my women friends and colleagues – both socially and professionally. It takes a very thick skin to put yourself in the fray and there is a price to pay. This ties back to the underestimation point (above) as stated by to author Ken Auletta in the New Yorker “self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense”
This barrier is a tough one to get over – we are social creatures, we want and even need to be liked. Unfortunately, for now, we need to learn to withstand this criticism – not ignore it – it is ok to let the feelings exist, but by not dwelling we can prove this myth wrong and work to change it – once again, awareness is the most important step.
There are other important messages in the book and I applaud Sandberg for putting herself out there in writing the book and for including her many personal stories. Of course, her resources gives her options and support that most working mothers don’t have. I found myself chuckling that her description of her and her husband’s marital division of household labor doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of things like laundry and cleaning (p.111). Nevertheless, the main points and issues she describes and certainly the ones above are true for women of all socioeconomic positions.
As far as the criticism and controversy that has surrounded the book, especially at first (I note that it has died down – I think now that more people have actually read it) I find it to be the height of irony. Many of the critics are displaying exactly the kind of biases Sandberg writes about – certainly the likeability one. I see no reason not to assume her absolute best intentions. We should applaud her for applying her talents and ambition and “Leaning In” to support and encourage women and families.