In the offices of Facebook posters exhort employees to take risks. COO Sheryl Sandberg’s favorite reads, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Her own answer to that question is writing a book titled Lean In—Women Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg may have been afraid to write the book because she anticipated the voices that say, as a multimillionaire with a Harvard degree and powerful mentors, she couldn’t possibly offer advice that is relevant to most women in the workplace. But I believe if change is to come, a powerful voice is needed.
In Lean In Sandberg proves that in spite of her advantages, she shares the concerns of many working women and has herself made many of the mistakes she sees other women making that undermine their success. She recognizes that women in leadership have to speak up for the women who don’t want to ask for special treatment.
Her first “aha” moment came during her tenure at Google, when she was pregnant with her first child. “To this day I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet. As one of Google’s most senior women, didn’t I have a special responsibility to think of this?”
In her position at Facebook, Sandberg is now senior enough and confident enough to lead by example, leaving the office at 5:30 to have dinner with her kids. In today’s culture of endless work, she was sheepish about her schedule, so when she first started trimming her typically 12-hour workdays she hid her comings and goings by scheduling her first and last meetings of the day in outlying buildings, or waiting until there were no other employees around and making a dash to her car. But Sandberg insists that, in addition to the barriers from society, “women hold ourselves back in ways both big and small” and that women have to “dream big, forge a path through the obstacles,” and “set (their) own goals and reach for them with gusto.”
When I was writing my book, Knowing Your Value, about women getting paid what they’re worth, Sandberg told me, “A lot of getting ahead in the workplace has to do with being willing to raise your hand, having the confidence to say ‘I want that job, or I see that problem and I’m going to fix it.’” And, she noted, women don’t raise their hands like men do, sometimes literally. She recalled the time she gave a talk to a few hundred Facebook employees about owning your own success. At the end of the talk she told the audience she had time to take a couple of questions. After answering two more questions, hands were still waving so she continued to call on people. When she returned to her desk a young woman was waiting for her. Sandberg asked if she had learned anything from the talk, and the woman said, “I learned to keep my hand up.” She continued, “After you answered those last two questions all the women put their hands down. The men kept their hands up and you took more questions.” That proved Sandberg’s point; men get more opportunities in the workplace because they keep their hands up.
In Lean In she argues that women must stop “being hindered by barriers within ourselves … by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” Sandberg sees a “leadership ambition gap” and notes that in the U.S. women earn more than half the college degrees, yet women hold only 14 percent of executive officer positions, and only a meager 21 of Fortune 500 CEOS are women. One of the reasons, she believes, for this situation is that women compromise career goals for “partners and children who may not even exist yet” by leaning back, not seeking new jobs, promotions, or more responsibility as they anticipate having a family. She tells young women: “Don’t leave before you leave. Don’t enter the workforce already looking for an exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.”
When children do come, Sandberg says make your partner a real partner. Establish a relationship that recognizes that chores and parenting are split 50/50 by two capable partners. “If he gets up to deal with the diaper before being asked, she should smile even if he puts the diaper on the baby’s head. Over time, if he does things his way, he’ll find the correct end.”
Some other good advice from Sandberg: invest in child care early in your career even if it seems you are only breaking even, because it will pay off later when your earnings are higher. When my second daughter, Carlie, was just 4 months old, I was skimping on child care, thinking I couldn’t afford it. But I grew so exhausted working an overnight shift at CBS News that one terrible day, when I was spent and distracted, I tumbled down a flight of stairs with Carlie in my arms. The doctors in the emergency room whispered about spinal cord damage, but we got lucky and Carlie recovered completely from a broken leg. I could have left my job, determined to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom, but it would have been difficult to come back. Instead I spent nearly all my salary after taxes on the right child care, kept my career on track, and gave myself the ability to spend quality time with my girls and my husband.
Sandberg advises women to “sit at the table,” become more efficient at work, avoid unnecessary sacrifice, and accept what another poster at Facebook suggests, “Done is better than perfect.” You can choose to dismiss her as a privileged woman or take her advice as someone (like me) who has struggled along the way, and accept Sandberg’s clarion call: “We must decide that true equality is long overdue and will be achieved only when more women rise to the top of every government and every industry. Then we have to do the hard work of getting there.” Men and women have to work together, and “instead of ignoring our differences, we need to accept and transcend them.” Leaning in is the first step.