To say that I was resistant to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is a bit of an understatement. However, when my great friend Joanna Penn sent me an email on Friday night telling me for the third time that I should read this book, I decided to stop fighting it and bought the book on Kindle … fully expecting to do battle with Sheryl in my mind as I read the pages.
I really admire Sheryl Sandberg and what she has achieved – as the COO of Facebook, one of the top 10 most influential women in the world AND a mother, she is someone who has forged her own path without compromising. I loved her TED Women presentation which we screened live at the British Library Business and IP Centre back in 2010. But over the last couple of years I have felt quite strongly that women don’t need to lean in. That actually it is ok to lean out. That we can and should choose to lead our lives in a way that suits us rather than fighting battles to get noticed and create a successful career in a corporate cage.
Many women in the Women Unlimited community have had phenomenal careers, led large teams in FTSE 100 businesses, and held very senior positions, even board level positions before creating their own businesses. And they are part of Women Unlimited now because they want some different. Something more fulfilling. They want to cut their own trail, follow their passion, help their communities and make a difference. These smart women, intelligent and ambitious women have chosen to leave their corporate careers because it is the right thing for them and as far as I’m aware none of them have regretted it.
Feeling like an imposter
But Lean In surprised me. From the first chapter I found myself nodding in agreement. And as I went through the book, more and more of what Sheryl Sandberg was saying resonated with me. And as I read…
“But I also know that in order to continue to grown and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities. I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities. I still have days when I feel like a fraud.”
…I found myself tearing up as this really hit home. This statement perfectly describes how I feel at times. It’s a struggle to keep pushing through when I don’t feel like I’m good enough. But push through I do, because if I didn’t, everything would stop. This feeling is known as “The Imposter Syndrome” and it turns out that many women feel this same way.
Embrace your inner feminist
There were a number of things that Sheryl wrote about that, before reading her book, I didn’t think were a problem. But as I was reading, I realised that the reason that I didn’t think they were a problem is because they reflected cultural norms. And I had never really challenged those norms. In the book Sheryl shares our reticence to ‘own’ the title of feminist because for our generation it feels too militant. There is a slight feeling of discomfort that calling ourselves feminists means we are also man haters and bra burners. I can relate to that, but it is a word that I use frequently and deliberately as for me, the word feminist means balance, strength and equality.
Why women don’t lead
We live in a world where in-spite of all the progress that was made in the 70’s and 80’s women are still taking a back seat in many parts of our society. A 2011 McKinsey report has shown that while men are promoted based on potential, women are promoted based on experience (and when we apply for jobs we use the same measure… men apply based on their belief that they can do it, where women apply based on whether they have done it).
Also, studies have shown that most women don’t aspire to reach the top jobs in the corporate world. Sheryl calls this the leadership ambition gap. Even today’s young women, are less likely than their male peers to characterise themselves as leaders. Professional ambition is expected of men, but is optional or sometimes even a negative for women. Her theory is that our desire for leadership is largely a culturally created and reinforced trait.
Sheryl also talks about how we discourage girls from being bossy, where are boys rarely discouraged because taking the role of boss is something to be admired in a boy. I STILL remember the shame of constantly being told I was bossy as a child (and much like Sheryl still get teased by my brothers about it).
She also cites numerous situations where women internalise their lack of ability and how they blame themselves for not being more, doing more, achieving more. Or when they fail, how women don’t blame external factors like not studying enough, instead they believe that it’s because of an inherent lack of ability.
Family first or Career first?
Sheryl states that as women we lower our own expectations of what we can achieve and prioritise our partners and children (even before they are born) over our own needs and careers.
I can attest to the truth of this. In 2000 I made the break for self employment and was frequently known to say that it meant that I would be able to be more flexible when my future, and not yet conceived, children were born. And after my son was born in 2004, I moved away from doing corporate consulting to being a freelance web designer because it meant that I could be more flexible. And it wasn’t until after my daughter was born in 2007 that I realised that I was doing myself a dis-service by not stepping (leaning!) into my potential.
Today my children still take a greater priority in my life than my business. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not constantly
juggling battling with myself over where my time should be spent. However, what I have found is that if I prioritise my business over my family I always regret it. When my values as a mother are compromised, it leaves me feeling like the price is too high. So I continue, knowing that my business is not growing as fast as it could if it had 100% of my attention all the time but glad that my kids are getting the support and attention that they need from me.
I have also been known to joke about the irony that I run an organisation built around female empowerment while at times I feel like a 1950’s housewife. My husband and I have talked about role reversal and whether he should slow down his business while I step up on mine, but it feels like a difficult decision. There are no easy answers here and a significant proportion of Sheryl’s book talks about sharing responsibilities at home 50/50 but I think each family needs to find a way that works for them.
I am really glad to have read this book and am thrilled that Sheryl Sandberg chose to write it. It is a very brave and honest book in so many respects and has really made me question where my beliefs come from.
One of the most striking statements that I found in the book came from Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.. and she said
My generation fought hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.
Messages for future generations
Lean In is a really important book to read because it is a fantastic guide for how we talk to our girls and the messages that we give them. We have the chance to challenge and change some of the cultural messages that we take for granted. As the mother of a 6 year old girl, it’s certainly given me a lot to think about and some new paradigms on how to encourage her going forward.
Pick up this book!
Sheryl Sandberg is incredibly intelligent & driven. And most of us don’t have her life (or necessarily want it) but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t listen to what she has to say. The book is full of great advice on how to negotiate as a woman, how to deal with the need to be liked, how to step into a leadership role and how to find a mentor (I particularly liked her take on this…). I highly recommend that you pick up a copy and read it as soon as you can, because I promise it will change the way that you think about your own path and your own choices.