Notes and Review - Lean In (Sandberg)

There are a million reviews of this book out there, I don’t think I have anything new to say about the book. I do want to look at how Sandberg approaches the root cause of the issue that she deals with in this book: not enough women in leadership roles.

She begins by dividing the barriers into two categories: Internal and External. This was a very useful framework to think about the issue and try to improve the situation by making structural changes. The book is full of anecdotes, her conversations, and her advice to several groups of people. It is also relentlessly researched, there are no assertions or gut feelings in this book, everything is based on numbers from studies. For me, this was a book both about the main issue and a book about careers and how to make decisions that will affect you a few years down the line.


Two things I took away from this book that changed the way I think:

There is always an opportunity cost, and I don’t know anyone who feels comfortable with all their decisions. As a result, we inadvertently hold that discomfort against those who remind us of the path not taken.

Looking at the people I resented and have resented in the past, I can see them enter this criteria almost all the time.

The example that Sandberg talks about around the beginning of the book:

Women pay the price for this structural advantage that men have. They don’t get promotions despite appearing to have the same opportunities.


Some of the other things that I have heard in passing but did not understand completely before I read this book:


To this day, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet. As one of Google’s most senior women, didn’t I have a special responsibility to think of this? But like Sergey, it had never occurred to me. The other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, not wanting to ask for special treatment. Or maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed. Having one pregnant woman at the top—even one who looked like a whale—made the difference.

I don’t remember thinking about my future career differently from the male students. I also don’t remember any conversations about someday balancing work and children. My friends and I assumed that we would have both. Men and women competed openly and aggressively with one another in classes, activities, and job interviews. Just two generations removed from my grandmother, the playing field seemed to be level.

This experiment supports what research has already clearly shown: success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.3 When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. This truth is both shocking and unsurprising: shocking because no one would ever admit to stereotyping on the basis of gender and unsurprising because clearly we do.

Then he explained that only one criterion mattered when picking a job—fast growth. When companies grow quickly, there are more things to do than there are people to do them. When companies grow more slowly or stop growing, there is less to do and too many people to not be doing them. Politics and stagnation set in, and everyone falters.

One thing that helps is to remember that feedback, like truth, is not absolute. Feedback is an opinion, grounded in observations and experiences, which allows us to know what impression we make on others. The information is revealing and potentially uncomfortable, which is why all of us would rather offer feedback to those who welcome it. If I make an observation or recommendation and someone reacts badly—or even just visibly tenses up—I quickly learn to save my comments for things that really matter.

But even if mothers are more naturally inclined toward nurturing, fathers can match that skill with knowledge and effort. If women want to succeed more at work and if men want to succeed more at home, these expectations have to be challenged. As Gloria Steinem once observed, “It’s not about biology, but about consciousness.”9 We overcome biology with consciousness in other areas.

True partnership in our homes does more than just benefit couples today; it also sets the stage for the next generation. The workplace has evolved more than the home in part because we enter it as adults, so each generation experiences a new dynamic. But the homes we create tend to be more rooted in our childhoods. My generation grew up watching our mothers do the child care and housework while our fathers earned the wages.

I started noticing how often employees were judged not by their objective performance, but by the subjective standard of how well they fit in.

Dr. John Probasco of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told me that my story about women being more reluctant than men to raise their hands rang true for him so he decided to do away with the old hand-raising system during rounds. Instead, he started calling on male and female students evenly. He quickly realized that the women knew the answers just as well—or even better—than the men. In one day he increased female participation. By making one small change to his behavior, he changed a much larger dynamic.

Without calling for major overhauls, they tackled the soft stuff—small adjustments students could make immediately, like paying more attention to the language they used in class. They laid out a new, communal definition of leadership: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

There is always an opportunity cost, and I don’t know any woman who feels comfortable with all her decisions. As a result, we inadvertently hold that discomfort against those who remind us of the path not taken.