"Lean in for Graduates" by Sheryl Sandberg

Beverly Smaby

Lean In for Graduates is so much more than a book for women just graduating from college. It encourages women of all ages to lean in to their own skills, their own worth, and their own growth. Lean In was written by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, as a counterweight to the one-sided focus on what society and culture does to women. She recognizes the considerable barriers that women face at every turn, but (often with personal stories) shows the concrete steps women can take and the mind sets they can use to succeed at work and in life.

The "Sit at the Table" chapter urges women to walk into the conference room and sit at the table rather than at the edge of the room, as women too often intuitively do. This seemingly small step does much more than place them in a different location. It represents a decision to participate. As such, it is a symbol and a guide for how they can take a seat at the table of advancement, of increased responsibility, and of higher salaries. 

The "Success and Likeability" chapter describes the research of psychologists Francis Flynn and Cameron Anderson which showed that, in contrast to men, women who are successful are less well liked. Male and female MBA students were given the same résumé belonging to Heidi Roizen, a real-life entrepreneur, except half were told that it belonged to Heidi and half that it belonged to Howard. The men and women in the Heidi group judged her to be just as successful and competent as the Howard group judged him to be, but the Howard group liked him, while the Heidi group thought she was aggressive and selfish. They didn’t think they’d like working for her. What is a woman to do when she wants to present her accomplishments and yet still be liked?  Sandberg suggests she can say we and our team and stress how her work has helped the team and the company. This way she is perceived as collaborative and focused on service, traits people generally find likable in women.

In the "Don’t Leave Before You Leave" chapter, Sandberg tells of a woman who came to her with urgent questions about balancing work and family. As they talked, it became clear that the woman not only had no children, she didn’t have a spouse either or even someone special on the horizon!  Perhaps she was unusual in planning so far ahead, but her concern reflected the message that we all too often drill into our girls – that they will one day have to choose between advancing in their career and raising their children.  Boys are not trained this way.  No man would say, "I can’t take this promotion, because my wife and I plan to start a family." He would be more apt to seek a promotion!

Sandberg urges women to resist automatically falling into this trap. If a woman is offered an enticing promotion or opportunity while actively planning a family (or even while pregnant), she should seriously consider how it might work before deciding against it. She is not saying that everyone should decide to "do it all." She herself decided differently at different points in her life.  Her point is that women should consider the question in the context of their own lives and not just in the context of society’s expectations for women. No matter what, Sandberg encourages women to fully commit to their jobs right up to the day they leave. After all, from the day of deciding to start a family, it would likely take at least a year or two before a baby is born! One to two years can present lots of possibility for experience and career advancement.

Other chapters focus on finding and using mentors, being true to self, making your partner a real partner, balancing career and family, negotiating salaries, and more. Each chapter is replete with personal examples and practical ideas. In keeping with that approach, the last seven chapters include the stories by seventeen women and one man of how they leaned into their lives at work and at home.

The last chapter is written by Rachel Thomas who co-founded LeanIn.org with Sandberg. It describes the organization and its effective grassroots Lean In Circles.  Using the website as a guide, women can start their own circles and find videos and exercises to focus each meeting on a particular theme. At the time of publication in 2014, more than 14,000 circles had been created in every state and more than 50 countries. Circles help women in every imaginable arena – among friends, at universities, in companies, and in the military. 

Among other things, LeanIn.org has also launched the Ban Bossy campaign to influence parents, teachers, co-workers, and bosses to stop calling girls and women bossy and start calling them strong, successful, and assertive instead. 

Men, too, have benefited from Sandberg’s book and the Lean In organization. They have learned how to be better partners and collaborators with women.  They have also found good advice for themselves as individuals. There are even Lean In Circles started by and for men. I have found myself recommending this book to both women and men.

Lean In is a project that invites and lures us to participate. We can watch Sandberg’s Lean In Ted Talk and read her book. We can start a Lean In Circle among our friends or our co-workers. And we can spread the word about the Ban Bossy campaign to start important conversations and help change our culture to welcome the considerable strengths that women offer.