When I shared with a female colleague of mine that I was writing a review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, And the Will to Lead, she asked a pointed question: would it be difficult for me as a man to review without bias a book about women in the workplace?
The question stayed with me as I began reading this book by the COO of Facebook, which has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 20 weeks and counting. What I found was that Sandberg quickly answered the question for me. While the book is ostensibly about the lack of equality in the workplace, it’s really about subconscious biases — by both men and women.
While women became 50 percent of college graduates in the United States in the early 1980s, only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women hold 14 percent of executive officer positions and constitute 18 percent of our elected congressional officials. Pay inequity is striking. In 1970, working women in America were paid 59 cents for every dollar their male counterparts made. By 2010, that amount had been raised to only 77 cents for every dollar men made.
While many Americans may attribute these facts to historical discrimination or a glass ceiling that has now been cracked in most industries, Sandberg argues that this is not the case. In the past two decades, equity in the workforce has stalled.
Sandberg digs for answers to this inequity by using two sets of tools: professional and personal. The book is packed with footnoted hard data and referenced studies. But it is the personal anecdotes recalling Sandberg’s own struggles in making choices regarding family and career that make the subject approachable and immediate. In doing so, Sandberg makes herself vulnerable, and “just like us.” This is a commendable stance (and ultimately a powerful one) for an individual who is ranked on Fortune’s list of 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and TIME’s 100 most Influential People in the World.
Her personal anecdotes are enlightening. For example, she shares the story that two years after joining Facebook as COO, she was in New York for a meeting with a private equity firm. When the meeting broke, she asked the senior partner where the women’s restroom was. He had no idea. It appeared that she was the only woman ever to have come for a meeting during the man’s tenure.
The conversations with her husband about sharing child care and other issues are similar to those taking place in most American homes with two working parents of small children. Sandberg shares her struggles in her career advancement, particularly those related to raising a family.
Sandberg presents a comprehensive review of why there is not equity in the workplace. There are indeed historic gender biases that favor men (for example, Sandberg admits to never having had a female boss). There are also many ways women limit themselves when making choices about careers.
While we like to think that gender bias is part of the past, statistics show otherwise. A 2012 study found when identical resumes for a manager position were submitted from a male student and a female student, scientists of both sexes gave better marks to the male applicant. Though the applicants listed the same experience and qualifications, the female was judged less competent and offered a lower starting salary.
Sandberg doesn’t hesitate to point out that women often hold themselves and other women back. “Often without realizing it, women internalize disparaging cultural attitudes and then echo them back,” she says. “Women are not just victims of sexism, they can also be perpetrators.”
Sandberg calls for women to “lean in” and to empower themselves and others. She quotes former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who once said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
The book does more than highlight an often overlooked problem and explore its underlying causes. It is also filled with actual solutions and examples of how they have worked. Businesses and industries of all kinds have become increasingly committed to making a difference in this area. In addition, women are “leaning in” more and more to take on new roles.
While the book acknowledges that women in the developed world are better off than ever, the goal of equality has not been reached. To move forward, both men and women have to understand our biases and agree to work through them.
“We are a new generation,” the author writes, “and we need a new approach.”
Sandberg’s book is a strong first step.