December 5, 2022
Book Club
13 minutes
Natalia Rossingol

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: A 13-Minute Summary

Read why and how women can lean in instead of leaning back in a summary of a famous book by Facebook's COO - Sheryl Sandberg.

One hundred years ago the suffragettes marched in the streets, fighting for women’s rights and equality. Since that time, a lot has changed. The glass ceiling has cracked in many industries. Yet, this world is still ruled by men.

Of the 195 countries, only 17 are led by women. Only 4% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And women still get paid less. What would the suffragettes say?

“Lean In: Work, Women, and Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg is a book about blatant inequality women still face in the modern world, providing advice on how this can be changed.

Sandberg, a Chief Operating Officer at Facebook and an ex-Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, shares stories from her own career. Exposing vulnerable moments, she hopes that her example will empower women to lean in and achieve their full potential.     

Here’s our chapter-by-chapter summary of “Lean in.”

📖 Chapter 1. The Leadership Ambition Gap

Just like men, women have the skills to be leaders. Look at the statistics. In the United States, girls earn 60% of master’s degrees and 57% of undergraduate ones. In Europe, 82% of women completed upper secondary education, compared to 77% of men.

However, the number of women in top jobs haven’t increased. The reason is that career progress requires taking risks and the ability to stand up for oneself. And women are usually discouraged from demonstrating these features.

This is why, if a job involves having power and lots of responsibility (which is typical of leadership positions), it will probably be taken by a man.

Stereotypes about women in the workplace are strong. “He is very ambitious” is a great compliment. “She’s very ambitious” has negative shades of meaning. These stereotypes are introduced in childhood – from early years, girls are treated differently. When a little girl is trying to lead, she’s called bossy. Boys are rarely called bossy – because they are expected to be bosses.

These stereotypes put serious social pressure on women. While it’s assumed men can have both a successful professional life and a happy private life, it’s not the same for women. Women are told they have to choose.

But women can participate in multiple roles. They can be both competent professionals and good mothers. Sandberg says that a crucial step in this direction is to get rid of fear. 

Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.

📖 Chapter 2. Sit At the Table

Sandberg opens this chapter by telling us a personal story. Once she hosted a meeting for the Treasury Secretary at Facebook, inviting 15 executives for breakfast. The men took their food and sat at the conference table. The women also took their food - after the men - and sat in chairs at the side of the room. Even after Sandberg welcomed them at the table, they stayed in their seats.

This incident helped her realize an unpleasant truth – that besides dealing with social obstacles, women fight with obstacles coming from within.

Women seriously suffer from the impostor syndrome, Sandberg explains. This phenomenon means that people who are actually capable of doing things doubt themselves, feeling undeserving and guilty. 

This is why women often attribute their success to external factors. They say they just got lucky or someone helped them, or that they worked hard. In any case, they diminish their capabilities.

But women need to be more confident. To be successful, one has to take opportunities. And opportunities are rarely offered – they have to be seized. There is no time for feeling like a fraud.

Women have to learn to keep their hands up, because when they lower them, even managers with the best intentions might not notice.

📖 Chapter 3. Success and Likeability

The perceptions about men and women in the workplace are greatly illustrated by the results of an experiment run by Frank Flynn, a Columbia Business School Professor, and Cameron Anderson, a New York University professor.

Flynn and Anderson assigned some of their students to read a real story of a successful venture capitalist Heidi Roizen. The second half of the students read the same story, but the name “Heidi” was changed to “Howard”.

The students had to share their impressions. Even though they recognized the competency of both Heidi and Howard, they liked Howard more. Unlike him, Heidi was described as selfish and a person whom they wouldn’t hire or want to work with.

The conclusion was clear: successful men are liked, and successful women are not.

The problem here is, again, stereotypes. Women are expected to be caregivers and sensitive by nature. Heidi violated that stereotype and acted like a man. As a result, people disliked her.

This leads to more problems. Feeling that their success might be frowned upon, women are afraid to ask for promotions. Similarly, they don’t negotiate for themselves – as Sandberg ironically points out, for women negotiating is like “trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels.”

To make things easier while advocating for yourself, Sandberg recommends two things:

  1. Use “we” instead of “I”. For example, say “we had a great year” instead of “I had a great year.” Your request will be better received.
  2. Justify your request. Mention that you’ve been encouraged by a senior (“My manager suggested I talk with you about my compensation”), or that the industry standards allow you to ask for more.

📖 Chapter 4. It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

Careers are typically compared to ladders. But this metaphor is limiting: it means people can move only up or down. And there is only one way to get to the top.

This is why Sandberg prefers another metaphor – the one of a jungle gym. A jungle gym offers many ways to get to the top. You don’t have to plan your career from the start. A jungle gym lets you try different ways and explore.

Sandberg explains how this worked in her case. After graduation, she had a vague idea of what she wanted to do. She knew she wanted to change the world. Her first job was at the World Bank, whose mission was to reduce global poverty. 

Then she took a risk and started to work at Google. And then she took a risk again, and got a job as a COO at Facebook – even though other companies offered to hire her as a CEO. Why? Because she believed in fast growth and was open to opportunities.

Women are often risk-averse. And being risk-averse leads to stagnation. Women tend to play it safe and avoid challenges, and this way, they limit themselves. When female managers move up, they usually stay in the same company. And when they apply for open jobs, they do it only when they think they meet 100% of the criteria – unlike men, who apply when they meet 60% of it.

Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb describe such a phenomenon as the “Tiara Syndrome” – a belief that if you work hard, someone will notice and will put a tiara on your head. But life isn’t like that. You will win only if you challenge yourself, ask for promotions, and take risks.

Do not wait for power to be offered. Like that tiara, it might never materialize. And anyway, who wears a tiara in a jungle gym?

📖 Chapter 5. Are You My Mentor?

Mentorship is important for career progression. Both men and women with mentors have more chances to get a pay raise or a stretch assignment. But to tell people, especially women, “get a mentor and you’ll excel” is a mistake.

This is the wrong message. It teaches women that they depend on someone else. Young girls believe that if they just wait for a prince on the white horse, they will live happily ever after. Adult women believe that once they find a good mentor, they will build a great career.

First of all, it’s hard to get a mentor. The mere phrase “Be my mentor” makes a person feel uncomfortable. It puts a lot of pressure. This is why a typical answer is “no”.

But Sandberg says that there is another way around it – excel, and then a mentor will find you. According to the studies, people invest in those whose talent and potential are obvious.

However, lower-level employees also get mentorship. It’s simple – just pick a moment after a meeting to say thank you and ask for advice. This way, a person will get involved in your problem.

A good way to fix the mentorship problem is to introduce formal programs or, as an alternative, ask peers to help:   

There is a saying that “all advice is autobiographical.” Friends… may actually provide more current and useful counsel… Peers are also in the trenches and may understand problems that superiors do not.  

📖 Chapter 6. Seek and Speak Your Truth

Honesty is very important in the workplace. It’s the basis for effectiveness. Unfortunately, people often avoid being honest to protect themselves. 

Since many companies have a hierarchical structure, people are scared that an honest remark will negatively affect the perception of someone at a higher level. As a result, many issues stay unresolved.

For women, it’s even more difficult. Because they are already in a lower position, they risk being called a bad team player or just negative - more often than men. 

Sandberg mentions the following things that can make honest communication easier, for both women and men:

  • Find the sweet spot where your opinion is just delicately, and not brutally, honest.
  • Remember that there isn’t absolute truth. Your opinion may seem the only right one, but let other people express theirs.
  • Ask directly. Do not guess.
  • Give and get feedback. But remember that feedback, like the truth, is not absolute – it’s a subjective opinion based on personal observations. Be ready that it may hurt. Yet, it’s still better than blissful ignorance.

Sandberg also underlines that we should never undermine the impact of personal lives on professional ones. She believes that sharing emotions and talking about personal situations is very useful – this can explain many work-related decisions.

Fortunately, the tendencies in leadership encourage honesty and imperfection. And this shift is good for women, who often get accused of excessive emotionality.

📖 Chapter 7. Don’t Leave Before You Leave

Leaving the workplace, women rarely make one big decision. When a woman plans to start a family or have a child, she already makes sacrifices and accommodations that, in their opinion, will be required later. This way, she holds herself back. And leaves before actually leaving.

How does this happen? She refuses to take a management role. She refuses to look for business partners. In other words, she rejects opportunities.

But women forget that by making plans for the future, they still have time to fulfill goals in the present. Even if they get pregnant immediately, which is not always the case, they still have nine months. So instead of wasting this time, they can use it wisely, to not come back to a place that is drastically different.

What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives – not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.

Women should also look differently at child care. Yes, it’s very expensive. If a woman who’s had a baby comes back to work, her salary may hardly cover the childcare expenses. But Sandberg says that it will pay off, in the long run.

If women continue working, their income may become much higher. So it makes sense to measure the cost of childcare against their future, not current, income.

📖 Chapter 8. Make Your Partner a Real Partner

Analysis conducted in the United States showed that in couples where a husband and wife are fully employed, a woman still does 40% more childcare and 30% more housework. But this is a choice. And it can be rearranged.

Equal partners must be equal in everything. Women must be more empowered at work. Men must be more empowered at home. Very often, women discourage their husbands by being too controlling or too critical. Another unproductive technique is assigning tasks to husbands – because in this case, a man is doing a favor, and not sharing responsibilities.

Despite the popular opinion that successful women are single and lonely, facts show something different. The majority of successful female business leaders have partners. And, vice versa, as the results of a 2007 study, many professionally educated women left the workplace because their husbands didn’t actively participate in childcare and didn’t help with domestic tasks.

When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated, and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home.

📖 Chapter 9. The Myth of Doing It All

“To have it all” sounds aspirational – but it’s impossible. Aiming for perfection in everything leads to paralysis and frustration. This often results in leaving one of the things you try to excel at. “Done is better than perfect” is a wiser approach.

Sandberg also notices that we should distinguish between what’s really necessary and what’s not, to save our time. However, people often overwork. They do it out of fear that if they use the opportunity of flexibility, they will be seen as less committed. Unfortunately, they are not wrong – peers really see them as less committed.

Technology doesn’t make it any easier. The ability to work online often means that a workday is extended. Besides, people get work emails late at night, and that blurs the line between work and rest.

The new normal means there aren’t enough hours in a day. And that’s a big problem for everybody, especially for mothers. A woman can plan her things at work. She cannot plan things at home that easily though.

Sandberg says that the only way out here is to accept chaos, quoting Nora Ephron’s Wellesley commencement speech:

It will be a little messy but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications… and don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.

📖 Chapter 10. Let’s Start Talking About It

All of us are biased. We believe that we are objective, but we are not. 

There is such a thing as a “bias blind spot” – overconfidence in our own objectivity that prevents us from correcting the bias, this way making things worse. For this reason, we are all susceptible to gender bias, admit it or not. 

Of course, this does influence our interactions at work – and the role of women in the workplace in particular.

That’s why gender-blind evaluations are better for women – but, unfortunately, most jobs require a face-to-face interview.

Pointing out gender bias is an uncomfortable experience. If you tell someone they’re biased, most probably, people won’t like your comment. They might insist on their opinion, or just get defensive.

So is there anything we can do about gender bias? Yes, there is. Sandberg provides an example of Harvard Business School. In 2010, Nitin Nohria was appointed dean, and decided to close the gap between male, female, and international students.

Associate Dean Moon and Professor Frances Ferei spent the first year studying the school’s culture. This meant they visited each classroom and discussed the challenges that women and international students had to deal with.

Then they introduced small adjustments like paying attention to the language used. Also, they held students accountable for their behavior. The next year, they encouraged collaboration between students who usually don’t work together.

Consequently, a performance gap disappeared. Male, female, and international students received honors proportionally, and overall student satisfaction went up. 

As we can see, it’s possible to fight bias – but you’ll have to start talking about it.

📖 Chapter 11. Working Together Toward Equality

It sounds absurd but women in power often become obstacles for other women who try to get power. This is an unpleasant truth. Women get ignored, sabotaged, and undermined by other women.

There is even a term for this – “queen bee” – which describes women in a leadership position who use their power to keep other “worker bees” down. One reason for that is self-preservation. But the second reason is caused by discrimination. Realizing they live in the men’s world, “queen bees” do not want to associate themselves with women.

This leads to the following problem. A negative perception of a female coworker is taken objectively, and not as a gender bias – because it’s considered that if a woman criticizes another woman, she cannot be biased. But, in fact, she can.

On the other hand, women are expected to be warmer and more supportive at the workplace, and that’s also an issue. Reaching out to a woman, another woman hopes to form a connection. And when this doesn’t happen, she gets frustrated. It’s a double standard situation since this is not expected from a man.

In any case, Sandberg says that women should help each other. Stay-at-home mothers should not judge women who work out of the house and vice versa. We need to learn to respect any choice – and be supportive.

As former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”     

Not all women want to be leaders. But more female leaders will bring about fairer treatment to all women. This will mean less sexism and discrimination. This will also mean more flexibility and access to child care and parental leave. And it will give a chance to build an equal world – a better world, improved by talents that have been hidden so far.       

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