Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

300th Post

Women are not on top.  Yet.

By far the majority of the top roles in politics, not-for-profit and corporate life are shared among fifty per cent of the population, and that cannot be good for society. One of the women who has achieved a leading role in business is Sheryl Sandberg, and her book and movement, Lean In, are an attempt to prompt, stimulate and support the change we need.

Sheryl Sandberg

Short Biography

Sheryl Sandberg was born in 1969, in Washington DC, but her family moved to Florida when she was an infant, so she grew up in North Miami Beach. A strong performer at school, she went to Harvard in 1987, graduating with a BA in economics, in 1991, as the top student in her year. While at Harvard, she co-founded Women in Economics and Government.

After a short stint working at the World Bank, Sandberg returned to Harvard to take an MBA, which she was awarded in 1995. After a year with management consultants McKinsey and Company, Sandberg returned to the public sector in 1996, as Chief of Staff to the US Secretary of the Treasury.

Her big move came in 2001, when she was appointed VP of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google – the year it received its patent for Larry Page’s PageRank mechanism and just a year after Google first started selling advertising.

During her tenure at Google, Sandberg first met Mark Zuckerberg who quickly became convinced she would make an excellent Chief Operating Officer for Facebook, which he had founded in 2004. Over the next year, they got to know one another better and he made her a job offer in 2008. She negotiated hard and came to work for Facebook. Her main brief at the outset was to make Facebook profitable, which she achieved in 2010. In 2012, the Board of Directors invited her to join the Board.

During the years from 2010, Sandberg became an increasingly prominent public figure, advocating compellingly for more women leaders in all walks of life. Her 2010 TED talk, ‘Why we have too few women leaders’, has been watched over five million times – you can see it at the bottom of this post. In 2013, Sandberg released her first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which she co-authored with Nell Scovell. It focuses on the reasons why so few women (proportionally) reach leadership positions in business, and some of the things that need to change, to redress the balance. It has been hugely successful, selling well over a million copies.

Magazines and newspapers like Time, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times repeatedly place Sandberg high in their top lists of powerful and influential people.

What is Lean In about?

The core thesis that Sandberg puts in Lean In is that, whether you are a woman or a man who cares about genuine equality, complaining and making excuses won’t get you to where you want to be. There are barriers to women achieving their leadership goals and we need to address them… as a society and as individuals.

These barriers clearly start with systematic and individual cases of sexism and discrimination, and the realities of harassment that women face at work. Sandberg recounts Frank Flynn’s Howard / Heidi experiment. In this, he took a case study about successful entrepreneur, Heidi Roizen. He gave the unaltered case study to half of a student group, while the other half received the identical case study with just a change of name to Howard Roizen, and changes to pronouns. He asked the students to rate their impressions of Roizen and students were much harsher in their assessments of Heidi than of Howard. They rated her as equally competent and effective but they did not like her and, crucially, they would not hire her, or even want to work with her. There is an in-built bias that we have, that women who are assertive are aggressive and we extend that to dislike of them.

The second big barrier that Sandberg acknowledges is the real desire many women have to put a lot of their energy into their home life and she concludes that the solution is not for women to value this aspect of their lives less, but for their male partners to contribute to it more.

Finally, and most controversially with some commentators, is an implicit acceptance by women of discriminatory stereotypes of women. This, she argues, leads women to have lower confidence in themselves – with higher incidence of ‘imposter syndrome’, and therefore to set lower expectations for themselves. Men are far more adept at faking capabilities they don’t have and benefit systematically from more promotion based on expectation than women receive. Women need far more to demonstrate achievements before being promoted.

Sandberg says we need to break down the societal barriers and women who choose to, need to address their personal barriers and strive for leadership roles. She acknowledges that her message will be easier to act on for women with the privileges of education, wealth and status, but points out that any progress will increase the prominence of women, make their leadership more common and therefore ‘normal’, and add their voices to public debate. This can only open up greater opportunities for the many women lacking the advantages that she herself had, early in her life.

Why we have too few women leaders

Sheryl Sandberg looks at why a smaller percentage of women than men reach the top of their professions — and offers 3 powerful pieces of advice to women aiming for the C-suite.

Sandberg’s talks about her experience of speaking at TED and her book Lean In with journalist Pat Mitchell, in So we leaned in … now what?


Also on the board of the Lean In organisation Sheryl Sandberg co-founded with Rachel Thomas, Debi Hemmeter, and Gina Bianchini, was her husband Dave Goldberg. He died far too young, in May 2015. Ms Sandberg’s public expressions of her grief have been dignified and thought-provoking. We can do nothing more than offer our genuine condolences for a loss that must still be raw.

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