Thursday, 13 February 2014

Book Club - Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

What more appropriate time to finally get around to reviewing Sheryl Sandberg's (COO of Facebook, one of the youngest female billionaires, Forbes power lady, author and champion of women all over leaning in to maximise their potential and happiness) 'Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead', than just after Sony announced they had snatched up the rights and a movie was in the making. 

The book was a smash hit that boosted Sandberg's presence around the world while engaging women on all steps of the ladder in debate (from graduates to business leaders to stay at home mothers). A call for discussion and action, with an effective mix of Sheryl's own experience, facts and case study style examples that would hit home across the board, applicable advise and, perhaps most importantly, the notion that it was the responsibility of all women (and men) to do something. To lean in fully and chase whatever dreams we had without fears fuelled by cultural stereotypes holding us back. 

Let's start by a quick look at the author. At age 44 she has racked up an impressive resume including work at the Treasury, jumping on the rocket ship that was to become Google and (rather famously) being dined into taking a chance on Facebook by CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg. She also just so happens to be ranked the sixth most powerful woman in business by Forbes, held one of the most popular TED talks back in 2010, is a mother of two, and has a whole lot of excellent experience I personally think a lot of women in the work-force could benefit from. She also now runs the Lean In Foundation, inspiring women (and men) to engage in debate and actively work towards a more empowered and equal work-space for both sides. A recent project sees the foundation partnering up with Getty Images to erase sexism from their stock footage. More on that here. 

'Lean In' was only released last March (2013) but at barely a year old has become a bit of a phenomenon. A natural next step from her TED talk (which was viewed more than 2 million times and sparked serious debate on women in the work force), the book aims to "challenge us to change the conversation from what women can't do to what we can do". 

"Learning to 'lean in' is about tackling the anxieties and preconceptions that stop women reaching the top - taking a place at the table, and making yourself a part of the debate." 'Lean In'

The bottom line is a mixture of inspiration and serious question marks as Sandberg suggests the Feminist/Equality revolution has stalled. In one part of the book she remembers a talk held to students where she bluntly told the room that in 15 years a majority of those women working full-time would be doing so for someone else, and quite probably the guy sat next to them. Another now famous section deals with the 'take a seat' challenge. During a big meeting Sandberg noticed the only other ladies had sat down away from the main table. Even after Sheryl asked if they wouldn't like to join in at the big table they refrained. Always. Take. A. Seat. At. The. Table. If we're too scared to take our place there how can we expect to be part of the big discussions? 

Another big focus of the book is questioning the 'work/life balance' debate. Sandberg argues against the very notion of such a label as used today in relation to women. The additional element of pressure and stress, expecting us to ensure we have it all and do it well or forcing us to chose one over the other. Focusing on the problems of women leaning out early on in their careers, often due to planning for when they may want children years ahead, resulting in them lagging behind early on and understandably struggling to get back/move up the ladder once they return after said potential child in the future. 

It's understandable, we're all constantly barraged with pressure about our ticking biological clocks, the lack of flexible maternity leave, timeline expectations, told what we can and can't have etc etc... Of course it's stressful already, but as the book points out if you take a step back long before that part of life is a relevant problem you're not planning ahead successfully, you're avoiding moving forward for no existing reason. Finding your happy place and doing something you love is not going to diminish your chances of a future happy balanced family life, if anything surely the experience and positive mental status of doing something you enjoy will only be a positive addition when you go for the baby-making (if that is something you're looking to do, again no right or wrong answer there). 

While the whole book is packed with examples that will strike a chord with a lot of working ladies (of all ages and stages in your careers) one in particular stood out for me. 

Sandberg explains that once she had decided to take Zuckerberg up on his offer of joining Facebook that was exactly what she intended to do. No negotiation, no additional salary talk or discussion about alternative compensation. This strong headed business woman who had helped grow Google, who had years of experience building her brand, wasn't particularly afraid to speak her mind and used to dealing with senior businessmen and women. She wasn't going to negotiate further. It was, in fact, her husband who stepped in and asked that question... 

What would a guy do right now in your position? 

So she went back to Zuckerberg with some very relevant comments. If she couldn't negotiate for herself than how could he expect her to do so effectively on behalf of his company? So she negotiated, and scored herself a good deal (because of course he would be willing to listen and talk, after all you don't put that much effort into recruiting someone only to avoid a discussion at the finish line). 

Sandberg focuses a lot on the funny stereotypes us ladies have to deal with. Too nice and you're a pushover. Too ballsy and you're a bitch. Too in between and you get lost in the crowd. What's the right answer? Sandberg advocates a solid mix of the two, a nice but decisive approach. I like to think of it as respectful but without selling yourself short (granted, I'm aware I've come across as both ends of the spectrum in the past, much like a lot of women do). From when we are little girls society tells us what that entails; being ladylike, looking girly enough, not wanting to be mistaken for a 'tomboy' even though that's not remotely appropriate a term to define a girl who's outdoorsy or prefers adventures over dolls. Pink over blue, from birth, defines us. What about the girl that likes blue or the boy that prefers dolls? New stereotypes take over, and we question how girly or boyish they are and why that may be. For no real reason aside from cultural expectations, ones that define us all the way into our career. The female candidate may be bossy but the man shows great leadership potential. Really? 

She also points out that we can't do it alone. Nor can the men do it for us. Blame-games are useless, it's only when both parties do their bit (and us women TAKE A SEAT by that big scary table) that we'll start to see some real equality. Because when it comes down to it everyone wins in that scenario. Like Hillary Clinton pointed out "Women are the world's most underused resource". 

One day hopefully the next generation will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, how these could even have come to be relevant question marks. Hopefully they'll look around and see people, nothing more and nothing less. Some will argue that can never be the case because women have babies and men don't and somehow magically that means we're less of an investable resource in the work force. And yet looking around at some of today's most powerful business women I see a lot of mothers that haven't necessarily compromised one over the other. 

Sandberg claims that she tries to leave on time every evening to enjoy dinner with her family. A clear private space. Then the laptop comes back on for some more work in the evening when everyone's gone to bed, granted, but she has that time. That's her balance. And last I checked Zuckerberg seemed to indicate he was rather pleased with his recruit, so I'm guessing from her success that such balance isn't a bad thing (notice, she's not burnt out yet like so many 24/7 worker bees who never put down the blackberry). 

It's a book that's received a lot of support but also a bit of backlash. One side rearing it's repeated ugly head is us ladies being responsible for tearing each other down far too often rather than supporting/pushing each other upwards, in particular when it's a fight for success. Another side includes this critique claiming it is too much of a 'Sandberg-ism' rather than a call for re-newed feminism. Something I strongly disagree with (but again, all views are relevant).

I personally consider the incredibly broad term of feminism to at the core stand for one thing only, equality between the sexes, the ability to view each other as human beings first and anything else as secondary. However over time it has been pulled apart repeatedly, used for everything from man-hating to defining sub-groups with their specific battles, sometimes sadly perhaps adding to the word loosing some meaning. So to me Sandberg's book is a call for 'equalism' more than anything. A call for debate that hopefully one day results in us being viewed as people rather than judged based on our gender. 

Sandberg isn't saying she has it all figured out. In fact she gives a slew of examples of where she herself has faltered and succumbed to stereotypes and cultural expectations of her gender. She also talks candidly about trying to make sense of those moments, trying to figure it out while evolving and supporting women around her to do the same. It isn't an easy overnight trick where we'll suddenly wake up to a stable and equal world. It's a long fight that continues, but if more and more ladies and gents get involved in the debate rather than brush it off as 'not relevant to me anyway' or 'it's just too hard, this is just the world we live in, let's accept it already' then we can make some serious progress. And maybe one day, we can all lean in. Men and women alike. 

"Women need to believe in themselves, raise their hands, sit at the table, take risks and support each other. They need to overcome their fears. Men need to support women, too, encouraging female peers in the workplace and doing their share in their homes. If women lean in to their careers and men lean in to treating women as true equals, together, you can end these biases and break down both the external and internal barriers that hold women back. 

Let's keep talking about these issues. Let's start encouraging women to lead in whatever field they choose. And let's all -- men and women -- support women as they do it. You can turn the promise of equality into true equality.

You are the hope for a brighter future."
Sheryl Sandberg's graduation advise via the Huffington Post


PS Check out the Lean In Foundation, tons of interesting articles, tools and inspiration. 

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