“Lean In”: Why Sheryl Sandberg’s Book Matters

It was a toss up this time whether to write about the media controversy around Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s cancellation of telecommuting and the subsequent criticism that she has betrayed women in the workforce, or to jump into the hot debate around Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book “Lean In” on how women can overcome internal barriers that can keep women out of leadership positions. 

However, after downloading the Sandberg book the day it was released and reading it in two days, the topic for this column became an easy choice. The many, many book reviews, columns and blogs debating the merits of this book are as interesting as the book itself. It is always encouraging when the challenges facing women gets this much attention on so many media outlets.

If you are not one of the two million viewers who have watched Sandberg’s inspiring TED talk on “Why we have too few women leaders” then start there.

The phenomenal reaction to the TED talk led Sandberg to expand her ideas into a book that within two days of release became a Number One Amazon best seller.

Clearly, there is a hunger amongst women to learn how they can move into leadership roles in law firms, government, corporations, legislatures and other organizations.

Sandberg’s book focuses on the many internal barriers that women unconsciously hold that can prevent them from going for the brass ring. Herein lies the controversy.

Some critics see this as more “blame the victim” ideology without addressing the many workplace barriers that keep women out of leadership positions. However, both issues need to be addressed. Women need to develop greater confidence and ambition in order to advance and workplaces need to change. It is not an “either / or ” proposition.

Sandberg addresses this dichotomy by ending her book with suggestions on her new website about how women can continue to talk and support each other to bring about change. She argues that we can’t expect workplaces to change until there are enough women in leadership positions to champion that change.

So what can women lawyers and their firms learn from Sandberg? First, women need to educate themselves that despite what they fervently wish to believe, progression in most organizations including law firms requires more than well developed legal skills and hitting your billable targets. Men, due to cultural conditioning and workplaces primarily organized by men, have an advantage in innately understanding how to advance their careers into positions of power.

There are a host of skills and attitudes that come naturally to many men that women are often not even aware they are missing. Many women have not learned how to negotiate well on their own behalf; how to find and use mentors and champions appropriately; how to define success and power in their own terms; how to build the necessary support networks needed to manage both career and family obligations (Sandberg has two small children); or how to make sure their voices are heard at the table. Her most significant contribution that leads to the title of her book is her observation that women withdraw and hold back early in their careers from advancement opportunities in anticipation that years later they will have heavier family obligations.

Many of these ideas such as women holding the “Imposter Syndrome” (that one day they will be found not to be as smart as everyone believes) are not new and can be found in other books on women and leadership. What is compelling about Sandberg’s book is her willingness as a senior corporate leader to be frank about how she held many of these same limiting beliefs. It is much more powerful when we hear directly from a successful corporate leader than from an academic researcher.

Law firms also need to recognize that the firm’s leadership can greatly assist in the creation of more gender balanced workplaces. Partners can remove barriers such as understanding and talking about the unconscious biases around women’s readiness for partnership; assisting women to bridge between maternity leave and returning to full-time practice; experimenting with flexible work arrangements for both men and women that do not reduce profitability and many other workplace initiatives that will assist women to stay in the law and help firms become more profitable.

Sandberg has made an important contribution to the debate on why we see so few women in positions of authority. She notes that internal obstacles are rarely discussed. As she says, “ Throughout my life, I was told over and over about inequalities in the workplace and how hard it would be to have a career and a family. I rarely heard anything, however, about the ways I might hold myself back. These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control.”

No one gives up power or authority willingly. Women need to learn how to acquire authority in order to make the workplace changes that will benefit both men and women. Entering the debate by reading Sandberg’s book and the many discussions it is generating is a good place to start.


  1. Great article Linda! I do think it’s high time that law firms support women on an individual level, and stop paying lip service to gender diversity. While I applaud firms for addressing a lot of the organizational issues (GLASS CEILING) impacting gender diversity (implicit bias training, flexible work arrangements, on and off ramps, etc.) I don’t see firms doing enough to support women with what we refer to as STICKY FLOOR issues: the stuff that holds us back or causes us to Lean Out because we can’t see a place for ourselves in the firm. Having women on the exec and comp committees, stronger % in the equity partnership will help. But also women need to learn to advocate for themselves, negotiate better compensation, ask for better work assignments that give the competencies needed to advance, etc. Bravo Linda!