One of the titles on my reading list this past summer was Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf 2013). A much acclaimed title, Lean In has also faced a lot of criticism. And, while I don’t agree with everything that is being said in this book, I do believe it had to be written.
The book provides statistical evidence to show how women are underrepresented in leadership positions, despite their skills and ability to perform. As one can imagine, this has a lot to do with tradition and stereotypes. For instance, Sandberg explains how in the workplace men are expected to be competent, while women are expected to be nice – as a result, women who are competent are perceived as being less nice. Being less nice is not a positive social attribute. Nevertheless, Sandberg invites women to be more assertive, and dare to sit at the table. The more women in leadership positions, the better – that seems to be her mantra.
Overall, I do agree with the message of the book. However, coming from a rather different background, my experiences are a bit different; therefore, quite a few references in this book do not resonate with me. For instance, on page 22, Sandberg says that “stereotypically, boys are better at math and science than girls.” I grew up in an environment where boys and girls were equally good at math and science. In fact my first Math teacher as well as my first Physics and Chemistry teachers were all women. Throughout my childhood, while studying in an advanced Math class, I saw girls and boys equally perform. So, this stereotype that boys are better at math and science than girls does not echo at all my experiences and understanding of the world. I did grow up in Eastern Europe though, and the post WWII hardship may have something to do with this: both men and women had to go to college, and work to support their families.
When I went to college, I got a degree in Economics, and then worked as an Economist – about half of my college classmates were women. Once again, Sandberg’s remarks that there aren’t enough women studying Economics do not resonate with me. My initial impression was that Sandberg was referring to women in the workplace exclusively in the U.S. But then she goes on, and quotes studies and gives examples from abroad. Here I think a distinction between the U.S. and other countries, including comparative studies from various parts of the world, would have been more helpful.
I did not pursue a corporate career, but rather chose an entrepreneurial path. And, with regard to this aspect, a lot of criticism has been written about Lean In failing to address the role of women in entrepreneurial positions. Nonetheless, the book is insightful, gives lots of examples, and raises important questions about the role of women in the workplace – it opens up or rather continues a much needed conversation.
References cited in this book include many of my sources to go as a graduate student in Communications: Journal of Social Issues, American Psychologist, Annual Review of Psychology, Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, along with prestigious economic journals: Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Review, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Journal of Economic Literature, and Handbook of Experimental Economics Results.
A must read!