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Booked & Busy #2: Lean In

picture of the book cover of "Lean in" by Sheryl Sandberg
"Whatever this book is, I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigourously. I am also writing this for any man who wants to understand what a woman - a colleague, wife, mother, or daughter - is up against so that he can do his part to build an equal world."

Of course this book is not going to magically create equal opportunities, but it is a step in the right direction, and I believe Sandberg is doing her best to contribute to a more equal playing field. Books like this one are needed to sensitize us towards the issues and inequalities that still persist today, and if they inspire only a few people, they have their value.

Before summarizing the messages and shortcomings of the book, I want to describe the effect the book had on me personally.

  • It encouraged me to claim my seat at the table (figuratively and literally). Internalized attitudes are real and they impact our behavior. I wasn't aware that I wasn't claiming my seat at the table, but the book made me observe my own behavior and discover that, in fact, I didn't always deem myself worthy of sitting at the table. Now I confidently take a seat at the table.

  • It made me aware of how likeable I view successful women vs successful men. Sandberg quotes a study that showed that "success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women", and I realized that in general, I viewed successful men as more likeable, and successful women maybe a bit more as a competition. I still catch myself doing this when I see successful women, but now I am aware of it, and correct my perspective. I always ask myself whether the way I view a person has anything to do with their gender (or other dimensions of diversity), or whether it is truly connected to their personality or behavior. And I actively support other women and their success.

  • I learned that "women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements." Being aware of this behavioral tendency, I am more confident about my own abilities and working experience.

  • The book prompted me not to make assumptions of what is expected from me, but dare to ask for what I need. For instance, if you are offered a promotion, but think the new job would keep you in the office late most nights and you don't want to sacrifice family time, clarify the working hours and make your needs heard.

Sandberg is upfront about not having all the answers, but wanting to make a difference:

"I do not pretend to have perfect solutions to these deep and complicated issues"

She acknowledges her position of privilege to be able to choose how much and when to work, and having enough financial resources to afford help, which not all women are fortunate enough to be in. However, she is lacking to mention intersectionalism and to point out the multiplied discrimination some people face due to diversity dimensions beyond gender (e.g. black women, gay women, transgender women, disabled women, etc.).

Moreover, the book's messages on gender are kept binary and largely hetero-normative. Inclusivity in 2021 cannot view the workforce as men vs. women anymore. Anyone outside the gender binary and anyone else who is facing intersectional discrimination (related to gender, sexuality, race, ability, or any other diversity dimension) needs to be given access to a level playing field as well.

The book is written from the viewpoint of a white, wealthy, heterosexual woman living in the US, but besides the above shortcomings, the book makes several great points and helps to sensitize on current issues. It exposes situations in which women face discrimination in the workplace and at home, and brings into awareness those interactions that reinforce the inequality within society. It made me aware of the situations that have impacted my own beliefs about myself and helped me question those.

"In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in."

Besides the systemic discrimination women face, Sandberg claims that women also hold themselves back. Many women have internalized the attitudes of our society and view themselves as less qualified than their male counterparts.

Personally, I realized that I deeply internalized the patriarchal views of our society. When I think of myself, I feel less qualified than most men (I don't see other women as less qualified than men though). This feeling might stem from my family upbringing, the colleagues and managers I had at the very beginning of my career, as well as the mainstream media I've consumed. When I think of people who are successful in their careers, I think of Harvey & Mike from the TV show Suits. Even though their boss is a woman, the two lead characters of the show are men. Aside from Suits, there are many more shows and movies that contributed to this view of career success. Sure, there are also movies that show women as successful lead characters, but the majority are still white men.

In my opinion, the corporate world has a very narrow definition of what a qualified leader looks like. The qualities expected from leaders in today's corporate world are too homogenous and don't allow for enough diversity. Society needs to value a broader spectrum of personal qualities and strengths and see all of them as equally valuable.

"Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance is better than it actually is."

Sandberg also wants us to realize that women are distorting reality, and should constantly remind themselves that they are doing well and deserve to be successful. This distorted view of our own performance can even lead to Imposter Syndrome, which many women in leading positions suffer from. If necessary, she suggests faking confidence at work until it feels natural. It's no secret that power poses or other physical cues can cause a change in our attitude, and we should use this to our advantage.

She has faced criticism since starting to speak up in these matters, including the accusation of victim-blaming by telling women to lean in. And while I understand the accusations, I agree with her that not only do we need to change the institutions and systems, but we also need to claim our own spots. Yes, the system needs to be changed first, but then we also need to step up. If the chance is there, but we don't believe we deserve it, we will not take it.

While encouraging us to lean in, Sandberg does acknowledge, however, that it's not mandatory to want to climb the career ladder. Success can come in different forms, so there is no need to feel guilty if you don't have big corporate ambitions.

"Not all women want careers. Not all women want children. Not all women want both."

The women who do want careers often set lower expectations and refrain from taking on higher positions in the workplace because they are already concerned with family planning and scared to over-commit to work before having children. However, Sandberg claims that if you aspire to move up the corporate ladder or get a job with more responsibility, you should not hold yourself back earlier than necessary.

"Anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open. Don't enter the workforce already looking for the exit. Don't put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made."

To be able to accelerate at work, women who do have a partner or family should reevaluate their share of responsibilities at home. In one chapter, Sandberg explains how women still do bigger parts of the household chores and childcare than men in heterosexual couples, and advocates for a more even split of responsibilities. While an even split of household chores and childcare are necessary, I think she failed to highlight the concept of 'emotional labor', which goes beyond a simple split of tasks.

Towards the end of the book, Sandberg is urging women to give up the notion of 'having it all', but instead decide on what's most important to us, and accept the consequences of our decisions. She advocates for guilt-free choices for men and women (being a stay-at-home parent or focusing on a career full-time). If a mother wants to pursue her career and can't spend every waking hour with her kids, she should not feel guilty for choosing this.

While she says she knows that her career is not harming her children, I still have my doubts. I know this is my very personal opinion, but reading about her lifestyle, where sacrifices were made for the sake of her career, sounds a bit sad to me. Personally, I don't think a corporation deserves so much of our time and life energy that we don't have time for the important relationships in our life. I think our health, sanity and relationships are the most important things we have.

Everyone has their own motivations for climbing the corporate ladder (or not), but I look critically at my career ambitions because I want to avoid running after success just to feel a sense of validation or worthiness. I want to make sure my ambition to succeed at work is coming from a genuine place, and not from trying to fill a void.


2 comentarios

I am a Man and I wouldn’t be here without my mom’s perseverance! I am also a brother of a sister who I remind often about her limitless capabilities!

Whenever you notice the hesitate of a woman towards achieving personal or professional goals, as a Man, think about your mom and your sister(s), and encourage them to overcome that hesitation. One of the best feelings is the genuine and humble proudness you can have for others.

-> proud of the flight director of 2021 Mars Nasa mission:

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24 feb 2021
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I love that, David! Always supportive of the people around you :)

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