Women at Work: Leaning In

Much of my research centers on women in the workplace, whether that be the home or a traditional office, and I look at women historically and in the current workplace.  So when Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013) was released last year, I was intrigued.  I got my hands on a copy from the library several months ago, but I didn’t get to it in time before it was due.  I just finished reading it this month, and I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.

Lean In cover

The book is a great conversation starter, and it covers many of the issues I have either researched or faced myself as a female worker and a mother.  While I appreciated this discussion of women’s issues at work, I felt it was cursory and just skimmed the surface.  For me, as somebody who has lived many of the issues and also studied them in depth, often using critical theory or feminist analyses, this book was like reading a primer on the issue.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t the target audience, and I’ve read books and studies that address this issue in more depth.

That said, I handed Lean In to my husband, and he read it in one afternoon.  He enjoyed it and wanted to talk about the issues it presented.  It was a great conversation starter with him, and it was accessible to him.  The first thing he said when he finished reading was, “What can I do to help out more?”  So, if you want more participation from your partner at home and you want to make that person more aware of some of the difficulties you face, hand them this book.  It is a basic and accessible nonfiction introduction to women in the workplace. I’d like to hand this book to a former employer.

Actually, I had an opportunity to “speak” to a former employer about the problems I faced as a woman, including maternity.  I recently answered a query for stories about the concerns I faced when working for this large corporation as a pregnant woman and a new mother.  I was able to share my story and air some of my grievances anonymously.  The researcher collecting the stories responded positively and noted that many of the heads of the company are eager to hear about what they can improve for working mothers.

This issue was discussed at the conference I attended in Toronto last summer.  A panel of female academics discussed motherhood and work. One of the major takeaways for me was how important it is for women and men to talk about their families at work and not to hide the fact that they are taking a sick day to be with a child or leaving early to attend a child’s game or performance. We should all strive to make families part of work culture.

Sandberg advocates this as well: “I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work. I no longer think people have a professional self for Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. . . . I think we benefit from expressing our truth, talking about personal situations, and acknowledging that professional decisions are often emotionally driven” (p. 89). She shares a story of turning down a major job offer because of her desire to leave Washington, D. C. to avoid being near her ex-husband. While she could have told the man offering her the job a lie about her reasons, she instead told the truth. And when the time came, a year or so later, that she was ready to accept a new opportunity, she called the man back. It was an easy call to make because she had been honest to begin with. If she’d made an excuse for professional reasons, it might have come across as impulsivity or poor decision making.

Sharing our truths can help to change work cultures. Sandberg believes that “If society truly valued the work of caring for children, companies and institutions would find ways to reduce these steep penalties and help parents combine career and family responsibilities. All too often rigid work schedules, lack of paid family leave, and expensive or undependable child care derail women’s best efforts” (p. 102). This reminded me of another conference presentation I heard at Brigham Young University’s Women’s Studies conference. A young male sociology student argued that we should change our workplaces and our economies to fit the family, not the other way around.

Paternal involvement is part of this. Men should have more flexible work lives and be able to spend much-needed time with their children. Sandberg cites studies that show “When fathers provide even just routine child care, children have higher levels of educational and economic achievement and lower delinquency rates” (p. 113). We know that fathers are just as important to children’s lives as mothers are. This gives credence to the argument of the need for marriages to be equal partnerships . Sandberg shared research that shows this: “When husbands do more housework, wives are less depressed, martial conflicts decrease, and satisfaction rises. . . . It may be counterintuitive, but the best way for a man to make a pass at his wife might be to do the dishes” (p. 118). I know a lot of women who would agree with this.

I appreciated Sandberg’s candid treatment of crying at work. She admitted to having cried, and she wrote about dealing with criticism. Nobody likes to be criticized, and she has faced it on a mass scale in the public eye and social media. She shared what Ariana Huffington said, that it is not “realistic or even desirable to tell women not to care when we are attacked. Her advice is that we should let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us. And then we should quickly move on” (p. 49-50). This is a hard lesson to learn, for I tend to dwell on the negative things people say to me. However, I’ve learned (through blogging and in my Ph.D. program) that it doesn’t matter what other people think. I just need to be true to myself and let the rest slide off my back.

Criticism of Sandberg’s book is that it solely represents the views of a privileged white woman; she ignores many racial and multicultural issues.  This is true.  She does admit her own privilege and she is aware of how of much she doesn’t know and cannot possibly understand because of her position.  While her book is a conversation starter and certainly skims the surface of women at work and in leadership positions, we need more voices sharing their experiences, especially from women of color, women who aren’t getting paid more than minimum wage, and women who aren’t being recruited by the biggest tech companies in the world.

Another criticism is Sandberg’s approach of telling women to make their own success, and that women can change some of their own actions to increase their opportunities. I don’t have a problem with this sort of rhetoric, as long as we recognize that contextual factors also play a role. In some cases, a person can do all they want to make their own destiny, but if social structures don’t allow it, it might not ever happen.

One example she gives is that girls outperform boys in school, but “while compliant, raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace” (p. 15). She says, “Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself—traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting” (p. 15). In my own family, I’ve tried to encourage my daughter to speak up for herself, especially when things at school get rough or when she feels as if some wrong has been perpetrated against her. It is really hard for her to do so, and she sometimes feels as if she can’t. With my prodding and some practice, I hope she learns to be better at using her voice than I have been in the past.

This problem is related to the fact that research shows that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. This truth is both shocking and unsurprising: shocking because no one would ever admit to stereotyping on the basis of gender and unsurprising because clearly we do” (p. 40). I’ve experienced some of this in my current situation at school. I excel in my Ph.D. program (no surprise, given that females exhibit those valued traits), but I’m not liked for it much by my colleagues. We all get along okay, but there’s not a lot of camaraderie, especially since I’m the only female in my cohort.

Because I exhibit the traits of doing well and following instructions, I tend to suffer from what Sandberg calls Tiara Syndrome. This is an idea from Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, who say that women “expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head” (p. 63). Instead, they argue that women should advocate for themselves and speak up when it is necessary to being noticed. Sandberg says, “this must be done with great care. But it must be done” (p. 63). I often expect that my hard work will be noticed and pay off. At school, this is true, for I have an annual review and a close relationship with mentors who are interested in what I’m doing. But I don’t tend to advertise my achievements. I tend to think that it is more impressive for people to hear about what I’ve done through the grapevine. While this is a more humble approach, it may not get me very far in a workplace.

I do recommend this book, with some hesitation.  If you are already well versed in feminist issues and women’s workplace concerns, this book will be a review to you and might not seem to do an adequate job of talking about the issues.  If you are a working woman who has some inkling of the problems you face but you don’t quite know how to talk about or address them, you’ll probably connect with this book.  If you are a husband or a partner, you need to read this book for perspective and as a way of gaining some empathy and understanding of how fraught women’s lives can be when they try to “have it all.”

We know that having it all is a myth, and Sandberg certainly debunks it, but we also know that many of the stereotypes and criticisms facing women are not applied to men.  Sandberg’s book is a glimpse at this and other issues that many need to be aware of in order to make the workplace better for families. I consider all women to be working women. Whether you stay at home with children or spend your day in the boardroom, you work. I think ideas from this book can resonate with everybody.

Overall, I appreciated her definition of success. She wrote, “If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can . . . and accepting them” (p. 139).  I continue to make choices for my academic success, and I’ve made choices in the past for my parenting success. I hope to continue to make those two things work together and to be satisfied with the choices I’ve made.


48 thoughts on “Women at Work: Leaning In

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  1. One of the things I’ve observed through my career is you can’t wait around for other people to say nice things about your work or to give you credit for it. You have to take credit, or it will go to someone else. I have also found, unfortunately, that often the people at work who do nothing but agree with the boss still get ahead over the people who actually do the good work. This still happens. Mediocrity often gets promoted over merit. You have some really thoughtful comments here. This is an interesting post, Emily.

    1. Thanks, Kay. Your experiences line up with what Sandberg was arguing. There’s nothing wrong with taking credit where it is due!

  2. Emily, I think you husband’s reaction sums up nicely why she wrote the book the way she did. As you note, you were not the intended audience, as I am sure she wanted more women and men to begin conversations and self-reflection. I also agree with the author and you that this does not speak to people with less education.

    I go back to the NYC study called “Class Matters.” People with less education are far less inclined to ask questions and challenge authority figures, as they lack the confidence – the best example I can think is people not questioning terms of variable mortgages and losing their home when the interest rate jumped. This is probably doubly true for women in these circumstances, so they would be less inclined to “lean in” for fear of losing their job.

    Great post and recommendation. BTG

    1. Hmmm, that’s interesting. I wonder if this book then argues FOR education in a roundabout way. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that we all be willing and able to ask questions and jump into conversations.

      1. When I was in college, my finance professor used to say the answer to all finance questions is written on the ceiling – the answer is “cash flow.” To answer your question in this same spirit, the answer to almost every problem is written on the same ceilings – the answer is “education.” The smarter we are, the more questions we ask. I have been preaching this message to my kids.

        1. Emily, I am about half way through this. I see your point. It is a good conversation starter. While there are some takeaways for all, it is written for people who have a better place to lean in from. There are many women (and men) who are in jobs where they cannot lean in or risk getting fired.

          With that said, I do like that she is encouraging women to sit at the table. This kind of nudging can only help people gain a better voice. Thanks for the impetus to read it. BTG

          1. I’m so glad you are reading it! I do LOVE her table analogy. It is true that we can’t be fed unless we sit at the table, and that’s true for everybody. I guess the next question is are we allowed to sit at the table? If not, we need to fight that. Good point about how many men and women might not be able to lean in. Let me know what you think overall when you finish it! 🙂

  3. Another thoughtful and insightful Emily J. post! You raise so many important issues — I’m hoping that some of this thinking continues to make an impact on way government and businesses treat women in the workforce. Women have made great headway . . . but there is still a long way to go.

    1. I agree, Erich! Thanks for your comment. I suspect that just Sandberg starting this conversation, or at least bringing it into the mainstream, will be of great impact for women and men in the workplace.

  4. I appreciate hearing about the book from your point of view as someone deeply immersed in these issues. I look forward to reading the book and thinking through these things for myself more.

    I can’t help but remember January, when our Charleston, WV water crisis shut down schools and forced most parents to take “sick” days to stay home with their kids. It was a time of extra compassion all around, since everyone was in the same boat. I guess most large-scale crises have that effect. But it’s the back-to-normal, everday attitudes that cause problems. It sounds like this book is already helping by raising awareness of these issues.

    1. Yes, definitely. How interesting that the water crisis lessened some of the judgment over taking time off. It makes sense, but I wish we could apply that to everybody everyday, and realize that we all have different struggles and circumstances. I think we often fall into the trap of trying to apply one rule to everybody, in any situation, instead of looking for ways that exceptions might actually be more useful and “equal.”

      1. Good point. It’s so tempting to take a simple, tidy way of viewing other people by applying the same rule to everyone. I’m guilty of that too sometimes. It’s a lot harder to look at individuals and situations and respond to them uniquely—but it’s a more compassionate, sensible, and ultimately more effective mindset.

  5. I took one anthropology-type class about women in the workplace and the advances of women and those who set precedents. Surprisingly there were a fair number of men in that class and we often had discussions about the day’s topic in the context of the time, and then now. Thank you for sharing this book and your reflections about your experiences (and some of Sandberg’s) about the issues raised in this book. I’ve tried expressing to Daniel some of what I’m sure comes up in Sandberg’s book. I’ll have to do exactly what you did – give it to him. I really like her definition of success. 🙂

    1. Your class sounds fascinating! I know one argument that keeps coming to mind when I think about this is that women have ALWAYS worked. Did your class address that at all? And yes, give this book to Daniel. It is a good introductory and conversation-starting book if you want to talk about it with him.

  6. I haven’t read this book but I did watch the author’s TED talk on this subject a few months ago and found it very off-putting. She was mostly talking about women’s responsibility to lean in to get what they deserve in the workplace and implying that the lack of women’s agency is why women are still very underrepresented in CEO type positions. I felt the talk came off as elitist and unrealistic. I’m glad you found the book to be a good primer on the topic, though, and that she made some good points. Perhaps she doesn’t actually mean to blame women for not being more manly.

    1. Denise, what you’ve said is exactly what others have criticized this book for. I sort of mentioned it in the post, but you’re right that she puts a lot of the onus on women to “lean in” and take charge. I haven’t seen the TED talk, and now I’m not sure that I will. 🙂

  7. I think what you said about talking about families at work, and not keeping it a secret when you want to leave early for a game, etc. is so important. My husband has worked at several different banks during his career, and they are still way behind in their thinking surrounding these issues. Luckily, I have been a stay-at-home Mom and have been able to be there for the kids always, so it wasn’t a big issue for us. Even so, I still noticed the ‘traditional’ attitude is still there.

    Also, as a stay-at-home Mom I could also go on about equality in marriage when it comes to domestic duties, but I won’t. I will just say this: just because we choose to stay home, doesn’t mean we love to housework and want to do it all day long. 🙂

    1. Oh yeah! That’s so true. Because mothering (and parenting) has gotten so intensive in the last few decades as well, it shouldn’t be an expectation that women “keep house.” It should be an equal partnership, along with raising children too. Our children are busier than ever and moms are expected to be more involved with their children. Sandberg addressed this as well. Anyway, thanks for weighing in. It is sad to hear that your husband’s workplace isn’t especially supportive. I’m sure you would love to have him around as much as possible.

  8. Loved reading your post and it makes me think of the dynamics in my current working position 🙂 I believe in being honest and being genuine and being myself. I so do not do fake or try to change who I am to fit in. I think some of this just comes with age and experience too – ha! Happy Hump Day 🙂

    1. I agree. I am loving your blog posts and the positive messages you put out there about self acceptance and motivation. You’re awesome!

    1. Hmmmm. Let me think about that. I guess most of what I’ve read are academic articles, so if you have access to a university library database with journal articles, do a search of those. I also took a class on motherhood studies, which had a lot of good information about the issue as well, although we didn’t just focus on the workplace.

  9. I very much enjoyed reading your article. I posted a very summary article today about women in business also involving this book (which I haven’t yet read). As I am not well versed in feminist issues I hope it will be a good start for me. I do feel that as I am very junior I can’t relate to a lot of the family issues yet as I have no personal experience. I hope to be well versed by the time that comes around though! Thanks again for a very interesting post.

    1. It sounds like you are on hue he right track to prepare yourself. I honestly didn’t worry much about feminist issues until I became a mother, and that prompted me to think more about them, especially since I have two daughters. It sounds like this book might be worth your time.

  10. Thanks for this very thorough review, Emily. I keep reading very mixed reviews about the book and haven’t decided if I want to put this one on my to-read list or not. I worked overseas at a VERY non-family friendly company (I was the first woman ever to go on maternity leave and so they had to develop a policy when I got pregnant) and eventually left because they still expected me to work their 70 hour work weeks. I’ve since been working for myself, and I feel a bit distant now from all the issues of women in the work place. Nonetheless, the quotes you used here are all very interesting. I am especially impressed by those that advocate for honesty with employers. It takes some courage to do that. I try to have a similar practice with my own staff, and so far I think it’s only helping…it allows us to see one another as real people rather than as bosses versus subordinates.

    Another thing that struck me is Sandberg’s quote about how the qualities that make girls successful in school hurt them in the workplace. I have the opposite issue, which is that as a mother of a boy I worry that he is penalized for not being quiet and compliant. He likes to question and ask questions, think outside the box, express his opinions, etc….which will be good as an adult at work but as a child, it’s not helping unless he has a teacher that appreciates this.

    1. Wow! The company you worked for sounds . . . Difficult. I can’t imagine what that would’ve been like, but you are a pioneer of maternity leave! I hope that made an impression and created changes for other women. And yes, I can see how you’d be concerned about the school issue from the other side. I’ve heard talk of that as well. It is tricky being a parent!

  11. I haven’t read the book but I have heard a lot about it and read interviews with Sandberg in the media. After reading this excellent post, I don’t think I need to read the book anyway! Your reviews are always so wonderfully detailed. 🙂

    I have heard about the research about positive perceptions (i.e. likeability) of successful men and negative perceptions of successful women. In fact, part of one of my modules this semester (Sociolinguistics) covered that. It is one of my favourite modules because it covers linguistic issues which are related to social issues, e.g. gender, education etc. If I start going into detail now, I’ll probably end up writing a comment which is as long as your post but I need to stop because it is dinner time! 🙂

    As a generalisation, a lot of the linguistic research on male vs. female success has shown that men are much more assertive in their speech patterns whereas women tend to be more submissive, for want of a better word. There was some research done by Zimmerman and West in 1975 which found that in mixed-sex interactions, men accounted for 96% of the interruptions. It is an astonishingly high statistic!

    Male/female linguistic patterns and the workplace is an interesting topic! After my exams are finished at the beginning of June, I think I’ll plan and write a blog post about it. You have inspired me! 🙂

    1. This is fascinating, and as I read your comment, I kept thinking, she needs to write a post about this. I’m glad you plan to as soon as you have time. I would be very interested in reading more about it. I’ve skimmed the surface of gender speak issues with Deborah Tannen’s work, but I suppose there is new research now. I look forward to your post!

      1. Thanks! I’m longing to get back to blogging but at the moment, I feel like I’m on a treadmill. Essays, exams, careers meetings, year abroad meetings (I’m due to go to Spain in October to teach English)…..life is hectic right now. But that’s not a bad thing. 🙂

        Ah yes, Deborah Tannen. I read some of her work a couple of years ago. She is very readable, which makes a nice change from some of the papers we have to read!

  12. Great review. I agree with you about the issue approached with a skimming the surface method. But, I’m glad it’s a conversation starter for many.

  13. I have had a very negative reaction to the cult of Sheryl Sandberg, as it were, but I found myself nodding along to your review. I’m glad you managed to extract some pearls of wisdom from a book that I, at least, have no desire to read. (Corporate/1% feminism does not appeal to me; I’ve read the text of one of Sandberg’s speeches, and I am afraid that reading her book could be a bad influence!) Though I will admit to succumbing to “Tiara Syndrome” about 90% of the time.

    1. I’m glad my efforts to get something out of this book were useful to you. She definitely represents a small swath of women, and what good is feminism if it only perpetuates privilege? There’s value in her speaking out, but as I mentioned, we need more perspectives on this issue. Thanks for the comment!

  14. I read this shortly after it came out and I was energized by the fact that Sandberg does talk about critical issues regarding women in the workplace. However, like you, I felt it was a good primer and not much more. I just picked up another work I hope will cover more than what Sandberg presented in Lean In. The book is Joan C. Williams’ and Rachel Dempsey’s “What Works for Women at Work.” It offers different generational views of problems women face at work and numerous interviews with minority women in the workplace. I’m curious if you have read this and what you think about it. I plan to dig in this weekend!

    1. I haven’t read that one, but my women’s studies professor just mentioned it. Tell me how it is. I would love to get into that one if it’s worth it.

  15. Emily, it sounds as if you have moved beyond this book for your own purposes. You need something more advanced, or with more substantial analysis of data. However, it is really lovely to read that this book has led to not only honest conversations with your husband, but that it has made him review his behaviour.. Both professionally and personally I have had numerous couples lamenting about the workaholic spouses (mostly the husbands) who, treat home like a dormitory only, and might bring in the money, but have no real concrete relationship with their spouse or children anymore. It places even more load on the other spouse and children. It also, as you would well know, takes away opportunities for the wife (maybe husband) to enter more into their work and have a life. Both your work experience, and your family experience place you well to flesh out this issue. I look forward to seeing what progresses. Another really interesting and thought provoking post. Thanks! 🙂

    1. It sounds like you have some vivid experience with this in talking to people. It can certainly be hard for a wife and children to feel unnecessary to a husband’s life and to feel as if they are a servant providing that home and food. I do wish companies would change to promote more work-life-family balance. It seems like some technologies have only exacerbated this by making us all chained to work through our phones and such. Anyway, thanks for joining this conversation as well!

  16. The first thing he said when he finished reading was, “What can I do to help out more?”

    i paused after reaching that point, and my eyes were a bit moist. what a dear sensitive and thoughtful husband you have!

    tell precious freckle face that i love the beanie boos, and i had never seen those precious critters until she introduced them to us! the airplane ‘device’ was my favorite!


    1. Thank you! She will love that you “commented” on her post! 🙂 And yes, I have a dear husband. He’s not perfect, because none of us are, but he will listen and he tries. Thanks for reading.

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