Advice from Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In to Discover It's Your Fault
In her new book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg -- the very successful billionaire female executive: COO at Facebook and, according to Forbes, the fifth most powerful businesswoman in America -- offers up a liberal helping of politically-correct ideology (the standard threadbare diagnosis that: Cultural messages for girls undermine their leadership; sexism is alive and well in corporate America; women spend too much time worrying about being likeable, etc.). Sandberg points out that the percentage of top female executives (4 percent) hasn't changed in more than a decade. She blames women for "leaning" away from highly visible roles and responsibilities; they are risk-adverse. Instead of "leaning" in to the potential for success, women tend, she says, to start worrying about their career taking them away from family and thus don't "Lean In" to the potential of their jobs, nor do they navigate the political waters of corporate America very well. Women tend to hide or minimize their achievements, she says, in order to be "liked." Women have to learn, she says, to be more confident, political and aggressive; they have to believe in themselves more and have better self-talk. In short, they need to be more driven; they need to have the "will to lead" (the subtitle of her book).
Called a "feminist manifesto," Sandberg's book is all the rage these days, and she is everywhere in the media. She provides lots of data about the "depressing" state of women in corporations (which coincidentally or not makes her rise to the top at Facebook appear to be even more remarkable), and she details the evidence that women at the top don't help or nurture other career women, nor do they ask for a promotion or higher salary. Women on the corporate promotion ladder, according to Sandberg, lack self-confidence; they hesitate to give their opinions in the boardroom and are uncomfortable in the corporate culture. She also laments that "women are dropping out" of the corporate rat race.
The strength of Sandberg's book is that she lays out the challenges and describes the pitfalls of the working woman very well. She makes it obvious that she knows the territory and knows all about the bumpy ride, including the hurdles and barriers women face in their career paths. Trouble is, much of her perspective is from the vantage point of a billionaire executive who, on the one hand, says women have to be more aggressive and on the other shifts total responsibility for women's progress on their behavior: smiling is important, show appreciation for your boss and use "we" language instead of 'I" rhetoric. She ends up coming across as a woman who having "made it," blames those who haven't for torpedoing their chances by their own behaviors and attitudes. It is tempting for individuals who have had great success to focus overly on what their efforts contributed and not give enough weight to the fact that they encountered fortunate circumstances that are not all that plentiful. For Sandberg, one of the few executive women in Fortune 500 companies and a paid director for Disney and Starbucks, "leaning in" means overcoming your internal insecurities, navigating around the external landmines and overcoming the cultural and traditional biases that stand in the way of your career progressing to the very top. One critic summarized her book: "Women, man up!"
Sandberg's experience includes being Chief of Staff to Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration, and vice president of global online sales and operations at Google. Sandberg is a leader that Time called one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World. Sandberg's book is essentially an outgrowth of her 2010 TEDTalk that became a YouTube phenomenon with more than two million views. In the video, she talked about the ways women "unintentionally hold themselves back" and encouraged women to assume a place at the table, take risks and pursue their goals.
She was motivated to write her book, she says, because she saw women working the same hours and working just as hard, but not climbing the corporate ladder nor getting paid as much as men in similar jobs with similar responsibilities. She notes that after 30 years of women being over half of the nation's college graduates, women still significantly lag behind men in terms of leadership positions in government and industry. She notes that "numbers tell the story" with nine women among the 190 heads of state, 13 percent of women in parliaments around the world and only 15-16 percent of women at the top of U.S. corporations. The Harvard grad (B.A., Summa cum laude and M.B.A., with highest distinction) acknowledges that she comes from a privileged background, has had the resources and luck that is necessary, plus she has had a lot of help along the way (Larry Summers is her mentor); she also asserts, "Nobody can succeed on their own."
Ironically and paradoxically, while Sandberg is telling women to "lean in" at the workplace, she simultaneously urges women to quit thinking that they can "have it all" which leaves open the million-dollar question of priorities. She tells women to set boundaries and while making decisions consider personal fulfillment as well as professional advancement. In my Year 2000 report on women's well-being, "Gaining Ground," I cited the ways that women progressed over the past century and noted that the only area where women have backed up is in their personal well-being. Perhaps the controversy over Sandberg's book will bring much-needed wisdom and perspective to women's success. Perhaps, it will also cause men to re-think their warped priorities and learn a little bit of "leaning back" that will bring more balance to their lives as well.
Priorities, it must be remembered, are the product of values. Experience shows that in our post-modern world of radical individualism, relationships of transcendent worth are often treated as expendable. Priorities that rest on a foundation of nothing more than ego gratification can never guide us to a genuine state of well-being.
Janice Shaw Crouse is author of "Gaining Ground" a report assessing the state of women's well-being in 9 areas -- including education, health, mortality, etc. She is Senior Fellow at Concerned Women for America's think tank, the Beverly LaHaye Institute.