Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

lean in women work and the will to lead

One thing I’ve come to realize recently about non-fiction is that I don’t have to agree with everything the author says to really find a book interesting and worthwhile.

When I read Zero Waste Home, for instance, I wasn’t suddenly about to shoot for one quart jar of trash per year. But I did find a lot of the ideas worthwhile and I loved seeing how one person lives their life.

Like Gretchen Rubin says, it’s sometimes more useful to learn from one person’s very specific experiences than broad generalizations.

Anyway, all that aside, you’ve probably heard of Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In Women, Work, and the Will to Lead long before this review of it. If you haven’t, she is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook (and made a whopping $845 million last year), and now become something of a spokesperson for equality for women in the workplace.

You won’t be surprised to know that I sit on the boards of exactly no companies (billion dollar ones or otherwise), I haven’t dressed up for work in three years, and my coworkers are more likely to spit chewed raisins into my hand than to offer me stock options (my mother is wondering why I even have raisins in my house. Okay, okay, I’m lying about the raisins. It’s probably chewed cranberries).

And yet, I found Lean In totally fascinating and useful, both as a work-at-home mom and as a parent of two daughters.

lean in: women, work, and the will to lead by sheryl sandberg

The book is part memoir, part business advice. She talks about her own path, attending Harvard as an undergrad and realizing she was in WAY over her head, later getting an MBA and then landing in Silicon Valley, first with Google and then with Facebook.

There is also a lot of discussion about women in business, balancing responsibilities between spouses, finding mentors, and some of the differences between men and women that manifest themselves in the workplace. It is full of practical advice and inspiring ways of making the worlds of work and family better for men and women alike. I told Bart after I finished that anyone with any interest in business, male or female, ought to read this.

The chapter that I found perhaps the most fascinating was titled, “Don’t Leave Before You Leave.” She talks about how many women, assuming they will have children in the future, dial back on their careers from the beginning. They don’t shoot for big projects, assignments, or promotions, worrying that they won’t be able to manage it once they have children, even if they are still years away from having children. By the time they do have children, their jobs and careers are much less lucrative, interesting, and engaging than they might have been otherwise, and so the choice is not between staying home with children or a really great job, but between staying home and a somewhat mediocre career path.

Of course, you can’t predict how your life is going to play out – if and when you’ll get married or have children or what your financial situation will be – and so sometimes a job you assumed might only be for a year or two, ends up being something you do for a decade or more.  It seems to me that the more serious and ambitious you are about your career path, the more options will be available to you down the road.

I am really grateful that my parents were always very serious about encouraging us to pick degrees, careers, and jobs that we liked, that could support us financially, and that had some sort of upward trajectory and various options.

I also thought about if you choose a typically “family-friendly” job like teaching (which, after having worked in a school myself, I have my doubts about, but that’s neither here nor there), you have intense competition from other people in similar situations. If you pursued, say, engineering and were as ambitious as possible during your full-time career, you’re likely to be in a much smaller pool of people who have your skills and are interested in working part-time or on a contract basis if you decided you wanted to stay home with your children.

Hmm, four long paragraphs later.  . .

I really could write at length about every chapter in Lean In – I have lots to say about being equal partners in parenting and household responsibilities, about balancing work and motherhood (if you happen to have interest in that topic, I have loved reading Joanna Goddard’s series of interviews with 15 different moms about how they make the two work – half of them work from home and half of them work outside the home), and the differences between how women view themselves and how men view themselves (the scenario she describes at Harvard’s graduation speeches describes the difference between Bart and me to a T).

I think there are so many different ways to make your life work for you, regardless of your circumstances, and even though my life is just about as different from hers as you can imagine, I found section after section to relate directly to things I’m working on in my own life. If any of you have read this, I’d love to hear what you thought.

I like to read books that are getting huge amounts of publicity and it was fun to read this one after hearing her name and book mentioned so frequently in the last couple of months. Even better that I enjoyed it so much.

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  1. Good review! This is my next nonfiction read and I'm really looking forward to it. I really believe that there's no one right way to do family, career, and life and that you and your partner (if applicable) have to work it out. And I think the "don't leave before you leave" advice needs to be handed out to way too many young women I know, unfortunately. At university I saw a lot of women planning on a certain life they wanted and not really dealing with or preparing for the life they were going to have/had already – from work skills to personal issues to romance. I like (from what I can tell) Sandberg's take much better.

  2. I haven't read this book but I did read the article about Sheryl Sandberg in Time magazine a while ago. And I really disliked it. It totally left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

    I felt like her definition of success and influence was incredibly narrow and she didn't acknowledge (at least in the article) that her assumptions do not apply to all women. If you happen to share her paradigm, then yes she has plenty of solid advice for making a fabulous career in the business world. But I felt like she belittled women for making decisions based on values other than her own and I didn't care for that tone. I personally prefer to get success advice from other sources.

    1. I felt like her book was definitely aimed at women who want a career, so the fact that there wasn't tons of discussion about other options didn't really bother me, even though I've chosen to give up a full-time career to stay home with my children.

      And the book didn't make me feel like she belittled that choice or didn't recognize that many women WANT to choose to stay at home, just that it wasn't her choice and that if, it's not the choice some women want to make, how to make the most of a full-time career.

  3. This book is on my to-read list and I am really looking forward to it. I have listened to one of her Ted talks about "don't leave before you leave" and found it so interesting and still applicable to me even while I am not currently in full-time work. Glad to hear you found it worth the read.

  4. Quite a few people have recommended this book to me recently. Now that you like it, I most definitely have to read it. That chapter you mentioned especially intrigues me as I'm trying to figure out that balance myself. I have no kids as of yet, but I want them, and I waver back and forth on having a high-powered career. Sometimes I want to totally gun for it; other times, I'm happy to take the easy route. Blerg, life choices are no fun.

  5. Thanks for the review. I have not read this book but I plan to now. I am a working mom. I am the attorney for a technology company and we literally can't hire enough software developers. I have long been thinking what an amazing opportunity that would be for anyone raising a family. You can absolutely find high paying jobs that will offer you unbelievable flexibility (e.g. work from home and flex hours). I think young women who think they may want to become mothers should go into the most high-demand, technical fields to set themselves apart. I would get an engineering degree if I had it to do over again.

  6. I really did like this book, even though I didn't feel like Sandberg and I had much in common in terms of our professional life. It was definitely worth reading.

  7. I did choose the "family friendly" teaching. The quotation marks are kind of snarky. When your kids are very small . . . and even after, mom being gone for hours a day will ALWAYS come with trade-offs. That being said, I always worked very hard in any teaching contract I've had (very spotty because of babies), but also equally hard as a volunteer. I have found it valuable to bring new ideas and a sense of teamwork to the table no matter how temporary or lucrative the position. The result is that despite not having held a teaching contract in 6 years I am now very well-positioned to do so. I'm a huge believer that things worth doing are doing well. Working or mothering or something in between.

  8. I'm really looking forward to reading this. I like the idea of "Don't leave before you leave"; though I'm still in college I see how that might happen often!

  9. This whole topic – balancing a career and motherhood – has been particularly fascinating to me of late (shocker). Glad to hear you enjoyed the book; another review I read of it made me NOT want to read it, but you've made me feel less dismissive. Thanks too for the link to the Goddard articles. Off to read them now!

  10. "Of course, you can't predict how your life is going to play out – if and when you'll get married or have children or what your financial situation will be"

    THIS! Oh, this! I would of never imagined being single and childless at 26, but that's where I am. One thing that has managed to give me so much pleasure, joy, challenge and reward is my career. I've always been ambitious, but never the "head of the boardroom" type. I've found that God really knows how to encourage us to use the gifts He's given us in ways that we are surprised by. I guess I just never knew I had it in me to be this ambitious? I am glad I did.

    One thing I love about our generation of women is that we've let go of the "all or nothing" path that many of our moms took/had to. Today it's not uncommon for people to work part time, from home, share domestic tasks with their spouses or other family members. We are far more supportive of other women than used to me, at least I think so.

    Can't wait to read it 🙂

  11. Hi there, I just noticed this review and wondered if you would like to link it in to the current monthly collection of books that people loved on Carole's Chatter. This is the link There are already over 25 great books linked in that you might be interested in. It would be super if you came on over. Cheers

  12. I just finished listening to this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am a stay at home mother with occasional side things (teaching preschool from home, nannying) and so (as you mentioned) it would seem we do not have much in common on the outset- I actually feel like we are very similar enjoyed her book. Do I agree with every single thing she said? No. And to be honest, I thought the first couple CD's (not sure how they relate to chapters) she was a *little* bit whiny- but I loved the last three. I loved the end- I felt the overall message was to "lean in" to whatever your dream is and encourage others to "lean in" to their dream as well.

    And having been a teacher in the public school system previous to becoming a mom- well, I am also not sure I'd consider it family friendly either- at least for myself. There is a reason I am not doing both right now.

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