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Family circus

Published on Friday, 19 Jul 2013
Book: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Publisher: Knopf
Illustration: Bay Leung

Sandra Lam asks whether Facebook COO’s book can help women master the work-life tightrope

It’s been nearly a century since female suffragettes in the US won the universal right to vote in 1920. Many modern female business leaders, however, continue to be frustrated with how slowly workplace gender equality is progressing. One of them is Facebook chief operating officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg, who makes the point strongly in her debut book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

With women making up only 14 per cent of CEOs globally, and a mere 4 per cent in Fortune 500 companies, Sandberg urges women to take control of their career by “leaning in” more at work and “leaning out” more at home – without feeling guilty about it.

It is a view that has prompted raucous discussion and has earned Sandberg armies of both allies and enemies. The book sold 600,000 copies in three months after its March launch and is currently top of The New York Times’ best-seller list for hardcover nonfiction. “Lean In” clubs and book circles have been formed, and the Lean In Facebook group has over 240,000 followers.

When asked by the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett if she regretted writing the book given the reaction, Sandberg said: “We need emotion, anger, debate. If my book can get that going, that is good. What is worse is stagnation, which no one is talking about.”

While Sandberg acknowledges that different women have different definitions of success and happiness – not every housewife wants to work, not every working woman wants to be a high-flier – Lean In is primarily written for career women who want to make it to the top of their field. For these women, Sandberg urges them to take control in their career rather than wait to be appreciated.

Given Sandberg’s research background at the World Bank, it comes as no surprise that each chapter is thoroughly explored and each of her arguments is backed up with survey results and research findings. She complements the empirical evidence with dozens of personal anecdotes that she largely uses to exhibit the barriers women face in the workplace, created both by others and by themselves.

The book is also filled with self-deprecating jokes and examples of her own failures. Sandberg voices her fears, insecurities and her desire to be liked. Drawing from both her own and others’ experiences, she advises on how taking control of their careers can be achieved, from setting a career plan to choosing a partner who shares the responsibilities at home.

In the first few chapters, Sandberg explains how fear and detrimental self-doubt plague many women, and acknowledges that both feelings still bother her today. She also states her theory that society holds a negative stereotype about women that says they cannot be both nice and successful at the same time. This acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to poor performance and failure.

For a solution, she quotes Professor Hannah Riley Bowles at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Bowles states that for women to be successful, they have to “think personally, act communally”. In other words, when negotiating for themselves, they have to come across as being concerned about others.

She then gets to what has proved to be her most controversial claim – that by leaning in at work and leaning out at home, more women can make it to the top. She backs this up with a number of stories about friends and colleagues who have done just that, and gives advice on how it can best be achieved.

This message, however, has not received a universally warm welcome from the struggling working women Sandberg no doubt hopes to reach. While a lot of younger women in their twenties who have yet to have children seem to have embraced the book, as have a certain portion of older working women, there are many, like USA Today columnist Joanne Bamberger, who have bashed Sandberg for waging a “war on moms”.

Their argument is based on how, with Sandberg’s net worth of US$2.7 billion, she can very well afford to be able to lean in at work and lean out at home – unlike the majority of working mums who have to do the school runs, cooking and household chores, all while struggling to pay the bills and keep their jobs. As Tereza Nemessanyi, start-up adviser at Microsoft and in her forties, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “The core ‘lean in’ message works for younger women. But for smart mid-life women and families, a wholesale re-framing of work and innovation is what’s needed.”

Sandberg, however, is clear in saying that “making it to the top” is not the same as “having it all”. In fact, she says women can’t have it all and that success is making the best choices a woman can and accepting them. Above all, she hopes that having more women in leadership roles will lead to fair treatment for all women.

It is easy to admire Sandberg’s courage in opening herself up so much and addressing such controversial issues. She peels away the layers from common barriers and follows up with suggestions that are by no means cliché. For example, she says that contrary to popular opinion, it is acceptable to cry at work as it can lead to the building of closer relationships. She even reveals she once cried in front of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and her boss, who responded by asking her: “Do you want a hug?” The message, she says, is that being honest and seeking authentic communication at work – something which most people dread – is crucial for real effectiveness.

This approach is also perhaps a clever one. It is like Sandberg is saying to her readers: “I’m just as weak, self-doubting, self-absorbed and fallible like every one of you,” and that she isn’t this uber-strong Amazon warrior who can take on the world by herself. It certainly helps us forget – at least, for a while – how many more zeros she has on her bank balance than us.

However, a crucial area Sandberg forgets – or ignores – is that of cultural differences. Leadership styles differ from one country to another and one style doesn’t fit all. While, as an Asian woman in Hong Kong, I find the idea of “seizing what we want” encouraging, I’m not sure I want to become a martyr by barging into my boss’s office and demanding a pay rise and a promotion. In a culture where people are not as outspoken as in the West, authentic communication is perceived very differently. In Hong Kong, both men and women who want to voice out for themselves have to plan diligently and communicate tactfully. Without both, it is easy to be regarded as aggressive at best, and at worst earn the distrust and animosity of your superiors and peers.

Is Lean In, then, a useful career guide for women packed with practical, insightful advice? Perhaps that is a bit too flattering. But would I love to have someone like Sheryl Sandberg as a boss or mentor? Absolutely.


THINK PERSONAL, ACT COMMUNAL  Women should come across as being nice and concerned about others. Always use “we” instead of “I”.
INNER STRENGTH  Provide a legitimate explanation when in negotiation. Learn to withstand criticism and then quickly move on.
MOTHERS ALL  Mothers who work outside the home should regard home-based mothers as real workers. The latter group should be equally respectful of those choosing another option.
SISTERLY ASSIST  Women in senior management should help bring more women to management level.
BREAKING FREE  Women must raise both the ceiling and the floor, and end the self-fulfilling belief that “women can’t do this, women can’t do that.”
JUST DO IT  Throwing up our hands and saying “it can’t be done” ensures that it will never be done.

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