In which I’ll be the one millionth person to review Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick this up. I’m no Facebook COO but I’ve achieved some level of success in a professional (male-dominated, techie) environment so on the surface the book should be very relatable. Maybe because I thought Sandberg’s big thesis was nothing new: we need the executive professional class to be 50 percent women just as we need the home “executives” 50 percent men. Women need to “lean in” to the workplace; men need to “lean in” at home. Or, as Sandberg says, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes.”

I don’t disagree. As Warren Buffet says, the reason he was so successful was because he was only competing against half the population. Well, I perhaps figured in the back of my mind, on the home/work thing, done and done. My husband and I are both very involved in the workplace and at home. Turns out I don’t have it all figured out.

There’s been much talk in the media lately about the wage gap. I’d not given it too much credence, mostly because I’ve thought, um, duh! Of course women earn less. That’s because most women, to use Sandberg’s term “lean out” and in fact many “leave before they leave” (again her concept). In other words, they know one day they want to be a mother so they don’t push themselves now. And this has a snowball effect (in my opinion). If you limit yourself to crappy entry level jobs, when you do have kids, why the hell would you ever go back to work? Not a lot of pay; not super intriguing work. Not worth it once you factor in childcare. Plus women working reduced schedules, leaving the workplace for ten years then coming back in… if you add it all up and divide, well naturally the numbers will look skewed.

What of it, I thought? These are all conscious decisions made. Not everyone wants to be the COO of Facebook. To each her own, right? I’ve done my part; I’ve risen to the executive level while still volunteering in the classroom, running kids to practices, etc. I’m not to blame for any of it, right? Actually, not right. Wrong in fact.

It’s no revelation that women are meeker in the workplace.  As a group we preface things with “It’s just my opinion but I think we should…” instead of “we should…” (Oh my gosh, how many of my own emails do I delete the phrase “I just wanted to…”) As a group we take lunch last and sit in the back of the conference room instead of at the table. I consciously grab the first lunch, sit at the table, speak with conviction. Surely Sandberg’s admonishments are N/A. I mean, I’ve already done the balance thing and have a husband who is 50/50 at home. Not N/A. T/A, as in totally applicable. I almost got teary-eyed at points, realizing the areas in which I still screw up on a daily basis. 

To wit. How many times have I said “I’ve made a career of lucky breaks”? That is, like, all I say about my career. You NEVER hear a man say he got to his position by being lucky. I’m helping to perpetuate this equality gap in corporate America by downplaying what I’ve done. Oh my god, I am the worst.

The Heidi/Howard Roizen Study was a mind-blower. Heidi is a successful venture capitalist and the subject of a business school case study. An organizational behavior professor decided to change her name to Howard in the study and teach the same exact thing – he simply swapped out the names. In conclusion: “For those students who thought the protagonist was a woman: ‘The more aggressive they thought she was, the more they hated her,’ he says describing the experiment. Students said they found Heidi less humble and more power hungry and self-promoting than Howard.” Same study, the only thing changed was the gender. Messed. Up. And here I’d thought the “women treated differently” was a myth.

A few other things that snagged my attention:

  • A 2011 McKinsey study noted that men are promoted based on potential and women on their past accomplishments
  • Because women tend to scale back in higher numbers in the workplace a byproduct is that institutions focus more on developing/mentoring men as they’re more likely to stay (creating yet another snowball effect)
  • “Ambitious” is not a compliment when spoken of a woman (I’ve personally overheard someone say this about me and it was in a very cutting/derogatory tone); of course ambition in a man is a very positive trait
  • If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice; if she seems nice she is not considered as competent
  • Sheryl Sandberg = Female COO of Facebook, right? If you Google “Facebook’s Male CEO” you get “No results found”
  • Multiple studies show that women routinely judge their own performance as worse than it is, while men judge theirs better than it actually is
  • Women who can afford to drop out of the workplace often receive not just permission but encouragement to do so (oh, man, I have seen this personally; the conventional wisdom is absolutely if you don’t have to work, you shouldn’t)
  • Professional women pay a social price for working; so true, I’ve seen this first hand, and I can only imagine men who lead at home also pay a social price
  • Professional women need to measure the cost of child care against their future salary versus their current one; such an excellent point I’d never considered, it does need to be seen as somewhat of an investment
  • If we make it too easy for women to drop out of their careers, we make it too hard for the men (remember, this is not just about women leaning into the workplace; it’s about men leaning in at home)
  • The pressure society places on women to stay home and do “what’s best for the child” is based on emotion and not evidence; Sandberg cites a major study (1,000 kids; 15 years) which concluded “children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were also cared for by others”
  • 41 percent of mothers are primary breadwinners, an additional 23 percent co-breadwinners. That’s 64 percent! Why haven’t we fixed this? If 64 percent are in the workplace why the heck aren’t 50 percent leading businesses, countries, etc?

Sandberg certainly doesn’t say that everyone should work and aspire to corporate leadership positions. In a perfect world, every person (male, female) is doing exactly what he/she wants to do, in an office, at home, whatever. The point is we need to collectively develop a culture where people with the desire and potential to lead in a corporate environment are encouraged to do so. By that same token, men should be encouraged to lead more at home.

“We have celebrated the fact that women have the right to make this decision, and rightly so. But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership.”