Should we lean in more?

Sheryl Sandberg's book is a call for women to seize the reins of power through consciously overcoming the internal barriers to their success.

How do women get into positions of power? Is it by following the male model – long hours, old boys' network, self-confidence – or do they have to change the rules of the game? And how do they do that if they are not in a position of power?

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In is the latest addition to the debate. The COO of Facebook [an organisation that comes across as unusually family-friendly] is one of the world's most powerful women and her book has attracted praise and criticism in equal measure. The Times called her book “the business manual of the year”, but others have complained that it puts too much emphasis on women forcing their own way to the top, rather than on organisations giving them the support they need to overcome what equalities minister Maria Miller has called a workplace “designed by men for men”.

Sandberg indeed acknowledges such criticism in her opening gambit – as she acknowledges that not all women want a career, or children, that she is rather fortunate in having the resources to 'lean in' and that “only a compelling, challenging and rewarding job” will make the decision on whether to stay on the career path a real choice. She says that it is better to “wage battles on both fronts” – the organisational and the individual – rather than “engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first”. She is more interested in the internal obstacles women face, she says, because “in part they are under our own control”. “We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today,” she says. “We can start this very moment…The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person.”

Her book, which is aimed at both men and women, cites numerous research studies about bias and discrimination against women in the workplace, talks about the gender pay gap, social expectations of women and men and about how women are schooled from an early age in compliance and keeping their heads down. She talks about how many women are not so much worried these days about 'having it all' but about 'losing it all'.

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Part of the solution

Her argument is from the perspective of a woman has often been the only female in the room and the book is peppered with revelations about her own life, including her own insecurities. She speaks of how important it is for women leaders to “become part of the solution” by supporting women in the workplace and home. She mentions anecdotes about things like parking for pregnant women at Google and how the young men at the top were not averse to this. It had simply never occurred to them because they had not experienced being pregnant.

Sandberg's book addresses everything from choosing a supportive partner to negotiating a pay rise to becoming more confident – the idea that women, despite years of experience in their jobs, often feel like impostors and put themselves down before others do, fail to apply for promotion and therefore miss out on vital skills acquisition and shy away from 'sitting at the table'.

The obstacles – social, psychological, economic and political – are enormous without also throwing in the hand grenade that is parenthood. No wonder so few women make it to the top and no wonder, despite some progress as a result of a huge deal of pressure, the figures on women in the boardroom are stalling. Can women overcome them on their own just by going on some confidence boosting courses, acquiring a good mentor and choosing an organisation with a good flexible working policy?

Sandberg cites Alice Walker: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” Is it enough to think yourself powerful? Sandberg advises women to do so because it is unlikely they will be offered it. And she says as you rise higher up the career ladder things will actually get easier as you will have more flexibility as well as more money.

Sandberg is a firm believer in shared parenting and that this will change the world and ensure greater equality in the workplace and more women in positions of power. Indeed, she thanks her husband several times in the book for his support, from the early days of her first child's birth to him giving up time with her so she can write the book after the children have gone to bed. Just as she calls on women to 'lean in' more to their careers and 'sit at the table', she says men need to 'lean in' more at home and sit at the kitchen table. The secret is to establish equality from the outset, she says, and to choose a partner who favours an ambitious, intelligent partner and believes in fairness. There is a mention of 'maternal gatekeeping' and how women need to treat their partners as equally capable when it comes to domestic and childcare issues.

Lean in is very much a campaigning book. Sandberg wants to change the world. She aims to get women to rise up and seize the reins of power, but the problem is that, in outlining all the obstacles we still face, despite progress, and the amount of conscious self-control needed to overcome them, it makes them seem exhaustingly hard to confront as an individual and the long-term goal of changing the world of work still a fairly distant prospect.

*Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is published by WH Allen, price £12.99.

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