Book review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I’ve restarted reading personal finance, leadership & business books. I’ve decided to write short reviews for those looking for material to read, because I get asked for book recommendations quite often.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013)

This book is essentially a follow-up to a TED talk that Sheryl Sandberg ( currently COO of Facebook, previously VP of sales for Google) gave in 2010. The TED talk caused quite a ruckus. Sheryl is considered one of the most powerful women in the world, with a net worth estimate of 1 billion dollars.

Main idea

The book is based on the discussion around whether the following fact can be changed (which she also starts with in her TED talk):

Women are NOT making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. (Representation of women hovers at 5-15% at higher levels in any field)

This statement in itself always causes people to react strongly. There are generally three ‘objections’ to dismiss the issue:

1) well, it’s still better than before (doing better than the 50’s is not a mark of pride 65 years later!)

2) it’s not about the gender; it’s about personal skill (implying that women don’t and never will have equal skills to men because they’re just bad)

3) change will take time.(it’s 2015, when?)

Estonia as a country is one of the worst examples of gender equality in the Western world & Europe. Currently Estonia has the highest pay gap (30%), representation of women in politics and business is also an issue. So, whatever you feel might be the cause of this issue, it’s at least reasonable to admit that this is an issue that should be discussed. (One I’ve had to discuss so much after creating the Women’s Investment club that I’m reaching incredible levels of being done with highly sexist arguments I have to counter.)

The good and the bad

This is a book that was clearly filling an existing gap, which explains the incredible popularity of it. The popularity was of course greatly helped by having been written by such a famous individual.

The main emotion I got from reading the book was “oh, I’ve had that experience as well”. Sandberg and her co-authors have clearly managed to pen down a lot of the troubles that (ambitious) women encounter both socially and in a work environment. I appreciated that the book didn’t just stick to anecdotal evidence but heavily referenced previous research on the topic, giving more validity to the claims that she was making.

The book has an easy way of discussing topics that are heavily loaded and still somewhat controversial such as:

1) success and likeability tend to be inversely correlated when it comes to women (read into the “Ban Bossy” project)

2) women systematically underestimate themselves and are less likely to own their success

3) the issue of whether or not women are the natural caregivers in the family or of it’s mostly social pressure

4) difficulty of finding mentors and the pressure to be “one of the boys”

5) the myth that having a career and having a family can both be done fully

The book of course has received a lot of criticism because at times its not consistent and the advice it offers is sometimes a bit simplified. However, the issues it brings up are real, even if the solutions may not always work.

Who should read this book?

This book should be obligatory reading to all women who are ever hoping to build a successful career in any area. It helps systematize several things you’re likely to intuitively know or have experienced previously. This should also be obligatory reading to anyone who ever wants a leadership position where they run a mixed gender team to understand the underlying issues that are likely to prevent the teams from working at full capacity. Mixed gender teams are shown to work better, and genuine talent is being missed out on because of stereotyping.

This book is probably not for people who feel that feminism isn’t something that’s needed in the year 2015 or who genuinely feel that the lack of representation in case of women is completely to blame on them not doing enough (and I’ve met some people who think like this in my life!)

Personally, the book gave me quite a lot of food for thought. I’ve experienced several issues mentioned and I’ve always been annoyed by the fact that successful women tend to get a lot of negative criticism for things that men get praised for. I’m also saddened that in the year 2015 we really still need to talk about the issue of gender equality so much, and it’s genuinely not getting better; in some countries it’s even getting worse.

5 thoughts on “Book review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

  1. Regarding the pay gap: somehow I have gathered around me such people where female average wage is approxiamately 20-30% higher than male ones. I was surprised, actually still am.

  2. If it really is true that the women earn 30 % less than the men, companies should hire basically only women and let the men be unemployed.
    However, I tend to think this myth is based on to the biased statistical analysis. For me it is hard to imagine this being true.
    However, usually I find in Finland the women working more in the public sector and men more in private sector and this could explain the difference. Despite a man and a woman have a Master’s degree from exactly the same subject, women tend to crowd jobs that are not that well paid (but considered more recession proof as the public sector is a “safe bet” compared to the company that might even go to bankcrupt but at very least lay people off).

    1. Yes, one must always be somewhat suspicious of what statistics show. In Estonia the trend is similar – for example 85% of teachers are female, and teachers are paid 20% below national average. It’s an issue of societal balance – if a “woman’s job” is expected to have a low pay point, then men are expected to make more money to support the family. This gets problematic if a couple splits – children who live in poverty are likely to have a mother for a single parent. There’s also the issue of whether or not these public sector jobs should be underpaid – for example imo teaching should be a highly paid job, yet an investment banker gets paid 5x more – why? They don’t create value. These are complex issues, and as an overall balance, there’s an issue that even with the same statistics the salary gap almost disappears in Northern Europe – why?

      1. A large portion of the gap is the fact that women choose different kind of jobs, but there still is a gap when you look at same jobs and titles.

        I spent some time looking into what researchers and other had said on the topic and unfortunately it’s not as straightforward as simply just changing some rule somewhere and everything will be suddenly ok. I made some summary of the info here back then:

        To be honest, it doesn’t even seem to be about salary, but a lot deeper underlying psychological/sociological topics instead. I think the salary gap is simply a symptom of these other effects and I wouldn’t even be that sure that simply advocating for equal salary would make things better (if not even create new psychological/sociological issues instead).

        Probably the society has to move to a certain place in the values and beliefs where these other weird things won’t affect the salary so much and the gap would disappear. Of course, maybe artificially removing the gap, would move us there too…

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