Ignore the critics: Lean In should be required reading for everyone, including men

Disclaimer: as a man writing about gender inequality, I acknowledge my privileged (and biased) viewpoint in this discussion. I’ve run this post by several smart, awesome women and incorporated their feedback, but I know I still run the risk of getting things wrong. Still, this topic is so important that I felt I had to try to add to the conversation.


I recently finished Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. [1] Everyone from the New York Times, Slate, TIME and a host of bloggers has weighed in on Lean In — and many of the reviews are quite critical.

Among other things, people have said it blames women, offers unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite, and dismisses stay-at-home moms.

Ignore the critics. They’re wrong and they’ve missed the fact that Sandberg has produced a powerful book that should be required reading. [2]

Incidents like the disastrous PyCon/Adria Richards debacle underline the fact that some men have little understanding of the unique difficulties professional women face, and some female professionals have struggled to find effective ways of dealing with these challenges. We need to bring more constructive voices to the table discussion. Lean In is a nuanced and highly relevant read for anyone who cares about building a more equitable world in tech and beyond.

A short summary

Sandberg is a total badass, and yet she has struggled with significant hurdles to achieve professional success. Many of these struggles were with confidence, advocating for herself and balancing competence with likability, as well as overt sexism. I was forced to reconsider how to evaluate outward appearances of confidence between men and women and recognize there are no simple answers for ensuring a meritocratic workplace.

Sandberg cowrote Lean In with Nell Scovell, a professional writer, and acknowledges the help of many experts in refining her arguments. The collaboration made for writing that’s leaps and bounds above your typical business-buzz-book fare: paragraphs flow well, stories contain appropriate detail, research is cited and explained.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share some highlights, but I seriously encourage you to read the book for yourself.

More women in power

Sandberg makes the mission of her book very clear. She wants to see women in board rooms and the halls of Parliament, running companies and nations.

In the first chapter, she recounts hosting a dinner party for Leymah Gwobee, the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize winning activist. Gwobee had helped lead women’s protests that toppled the dictatorship in Liberia and was asked what the best way to help her people and fight the mistreatment of women.

Her answer: “More women in power.”

Sandberg writes this book from a moral imperative. She wants to help ambitious women succeed, not just for their own sake, but to bolster the conditions of women across the globe.

Sitting at the Table

A phrase that frequently appears in Lean In is “sitting at the table.” Sandberg recounts a story of hosting a number of Silicon Valley executives along with Tim Geithnier, the Secretary Treasurer, and his staff at Facebook. While all the executives sat at the main table, Geithnier’s all-female staff seated themselves in chairs along the side of the room.

Sandberg was surprised and waved them over. They demurred and refused to “sit at the table”. Women often are unwilling to jump into the action, Sandberg claims, and this holds them back from moving their career forward and making their voices heard.

She says this not disparagingly from up high, but from the perspective of a woman who has sat on the sidelines herself more than once, and often feels doubts about her position as one of “the most powerful women in the world.”

Confidence versus Caution

There seems to be a disparity in how men and women value their abilities and approach job hunting. According to data from recent graduates at Northwestern, males were 8x more likely to negotiate their salary than women. At Hewlett-Packard, an internal report found that while men apply for open jobs if they think they meet about 60 percent of requirements, while women are more cautious and won’t apply unless they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria.

In the book, Sandberg shared her thoughts on negotiating once she received her COO offer from Facebook:

“My husband, Dave, kept telling me to negotiate, but I was afraid of doing anything that might botch the deal. I could play hardball, but then maybe Mark would not want to work with me. Was it worth it when I knew that ultimately I was going to accept the offer? I concluded it was not.” [3]

In discussing this post with a former female coworker, she told me how one time, after receiving a generous offer from a new employer, she made the decision to negotiate. However, her own mother actually tried to dissuade her from negotiating, saying “It’s already a such a high offer! Don’t push it!”

Ultimately she negotiated a better offer and accepted the position (woot!), but I thought this was a poignant example of how women are often discouraged from negotiating — a message rarely given to men.

Competent women lose points on likability

Sandberg cites a tremendous wealth of research around gender bias: the most memorable example is involved a real-life business case study about a take-charge entrepreneur/venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. In 2003, some Columbia business school professors had their class read the case study, but half the students got a version of the case with “Howard” switched for “Heidi.”

When polled, students found both Heidi and Howard equally competent, but Howard appeared to be a more appealing colleague. Both men and women felt that Heidi was more selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” This is a very clear example of gender bias: the students read the exact same case!

“When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well-liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political,” “can’t be trusted,” or “difficult.” At least, those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.”

When you want to become C-level executive, having the support of your peers is crucial, and we must be aware of how competent women lose points for likability. This is the double whammy that makes it hard for women to advocate for themselves: because they’ll be docked points for seeming “too aggressive”.

When Sandberg finally did negotiate with Zuckerberg around her offer, she did it in a friendly manner, emphasizing that as COO, she would be doing Facebook’s deals and of course needed to demonstrate her ability to be a good negotiator.

Forming truly equal partnerships

“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully— and I mean fully— supportive of her career.”

To get more women into power, they shouldn’t have to decide between raising families or advancing careers. [4] There has to be a way to do both.

On this point, Sandberg wants women to ask for truly equal partnerships (if they have a partner) and for men to respond and deliver on an equal partnership. In households where both men and women work full-time, women still do 30% more housework and and 40% more childcare than men. It is unsurprising then that women might feel more burdened by their jobs and struggle more professionally, as they just have a higher total workload than men.

And just in case you feel annoyed by Sandberg’s wealth and ability to hire nannies, note this anecdote:

“When I went back to my job after giving birth, other working mothers told me to prepare for the day that my son would cry for his nanny. Sure enough, when he was about eleven months old, he was crawling on the floor of his room and put his knee down on a toy. He looked up for help, crying, and reached for her instead of me. It pierced my heart…”

Being a working mom is hard, no matter who you are and while Sandberg has lots of money, it does not buy her unlimited maternal bliss.

Closing Thoughts

This book covers a lot of ground: Sandberg also discusses mentorship, taking initiative, seeking growth opportunities, stay at home dads, and a host of other topics. I’ve just scratched the surface with this blog post. I especially encourage men to read it because even if you think you’re “gender-neutral” [4] , I bet this book will led you to change the way you do things.

Here are some very unflattering examples of how Lean In has been relevant for me:

  • When discussing the business career prospects of a girl I knew growing up, I made an offhand remark that “it probably doesn’t hurt that she is an attractive Asian female.” I’m mortified those words escaped by lips, but even more disappointed that this line of reasoning made any sense even in my head.
  • When having a coffee meeting (not a date!) with a female I had previously only talked with online, I found myself wondering if the meeting was going well because she wasn’t smiling or sharing very much. Then I wondered if I would have the same concerns if I was meeting with a man. Probably not.
  • When I’m in conversation with any group that includes women, I am much more cognizant of how often I interrupt/talk over men vs women.

Lean In is an important book that should be read by men and women, in tech and beyond. Having more women in power will help unlock the abilities and contributions of a significant proportion of society that is often under appreciated. And making sure that talent surfaces and worthy ideas are heard is good news for all of us.

Thanks to Winnie Kao, Christine Yen, Margot Leong and Kat Li for reading drafts of this and Christine Lan for helping shape my thinking on this subject.


[1] This is an affiliate link. If you buy this book on Amazon, I’ll get a few cents.

[2] To address those claims directly:

  • Blaming women: Sandberg acknowledges there is a chicken-and-egg issue with gender inequality, with external barriers and internal ones. As a woman who’s struggled with these internal barriers and an executive who’s seen hundreds of women struggle as well, she’s chosen to focus this book on the internal ones, without denying there are significant societal problems that prevent gender equality.
  • Unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite: while it’s true that Sandberg has more money, power and connections than your typical working woman, she routinely discusses her own struggles before she became one of the most powerful women in the world, and she also shares stories from younger, “more typical” women she’s mentored and how they’ve leaned in. Additionally, she shares some of her more recent struggles of being a professional and a mom. In my opinion, the fact that Sheryl-fucking-Sandberg, the TED-talking COO of Facebook, still sometimes cries at work over issues that probably relate to her gender go a long way in underscoring the far greater difficulties that “regular” working women must overcome.
  • Dismisses working moms: simply not true. First she says she’s grateful to the many volunteers, who are mostly mothers, that sustain our schools, nonprofits and communities, and calls for working mothers to “regard mothers who work inside the home as real workers.” She describes many of the painful the trade-offs she’s made as a mother in order to work full-time and recognizes it’s not a path everyone would want to choose.

[3] Sandberg ultimately decided to negotiate only after her brother-in-law made a striking point about how no man at this level would ever accept the first offer. [4] Sandberg makes it clear that not every woman wants to be a working mom, and that some people find full-time motherhood deeply fulfilling and she honors that. She does point out though that the more you can achieve before stepping away to bear your child, the more likely you’ll want to return to the workforce because you could have an exciting career lined up.

[4] Actually, people who claim to have no bias are actually more likely to be biased, according to research Sandberg cites in Lean In. So people who think they’re gender-blind may need this book the most.

“When evaluating identically described male and female candidates for the job of police chief, respondents who claimed to be the most impartial actually exhibited more bias in favor of male candidates. This is not just counterproductive but deeply dangerous.”

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. Hi Jason,
    I really like your post. I think it is pretty amazing that you are even looking internally to see where you may have erred, and if more men were like you it would actually go a long way in avoiding the Adria Richards debacle.
    That said, I have worked in all-male environments because I started my career as a software engineer. To some extent, whenever you are a minority you just have to suck it up sometimes. I know I will get a lot of flack for saying that, but it’s what I truly believe having experienced plenty of the “offhand comments” you described. For example, when I landed a job at an Inc. 300 my senior year, a few of the guys who didn’t land jobs said it was probably because I was a good-looking minority female and they had to fill a quota. Is it okay that they said it out loud? No. Is there probably some truth to it? Honestly… yes. I was competing with guys who had better grades than me, who had summer internships, and the company chose me instead.
    I think there are two sides to everything and a bit of truth mixed in to all of it. It’s hard to deal with gender issues the same way it’s hard to deal with racial issues and (in this day and age) sexuality issues. The reason these stereotypes perpetuate is because there is truth to them.
    I admire that Sheryl Sandberg has written a guidebook for women who want to climb that corporate ladder. At one point, I thought I did and would have gobbled this book up… but now, there is no way in hell I would give up significant quality time with a child to be some piece of a company. I don’t think this book can change the world because I don’t think there are tons of women who want this life path. The sacrifices are simply too high. That said, this book could change the lives of a few women who want to pursue this, and there is value in that. It could also change some men’s perspectives, especially those who are positions to mentor and coach women up the ladder.

    • @MonicaLeonelle Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience Monica. I totally agree that from an individual level, “sucking it up” is the most effective approach. In someways, Sandberg’s book is telling women to do just that, but more effectively.
      But in the same breath, she highlights exactly why things might feel so hard for women and as a man, that was very powerful. While her goal of a complete 50/50 world for men and women leading boardrooms and tending kitchens is a stretch, I do think the ratio could be far better than it is now.

  2. Thanks for encouraging men to get involved with the Lean In movement. It’s important for everyone to participate in achieving widespread equality.

  3. kmin JasonShen Gr8 call TierraFilhiol ! Definitely check out #powerigup women by Detroit based annedoyleldr She’s a hero. #leaningin

  4. kmin thanks. Really admire your journey and read that post about your gender-related fundraising challenges. Awful, but way to pus through.

    • JasonShen Just gotta succeed to show all those people who thought I was too soft that they’re dead wrong ;)

  5. alyssaaldersley JasonShen will be seeing her speak tomorrow. Thanks for the commentary!

    • sharsoflight JasonShen Thanks so much for sharing, Sharmeen. Enjoy! Be sure to keep your hand up during q&a! :)

  6. Great post, I just picked up the book from an online retailer.  Having been the CEO of a small-medium sized business in a traditionally male-dominated field (OEM design and manufacturing in the vending technology and kiosk space), I struggled daily with the push-pull tug-of-war going on with our clients who wanted to side step me to deal with a male colleague.  It does wear on the spirit and makes you question why you deposit your children in daycare to spend hours with people who would just as soon try to make a pass at you (yes, even in spite of me proudly sporting my wedding ring) as to do business with you.  Frankly, at times, I had more intellectually stimulating conversations with my child than with the dumbfounded customer questioning whether or not I could really be the one in charge.

  7. While I too loved this book, often despite myself (as someone who is wary of feminism-for-the-sake-of-feminism) and think your analysis is spot-on, I think the only place where you’re being unfair is on yourself.
    “When discussing the business career prospects of a girl I knew growing up, I made an offhand remark that “it probably doesn’t hurt that she is an attractive Asian female.” I’m mortified those words escaped by lips, but even more disappointed that this line of reasoning made any sense even in my head”
    Frankly, Jason, there is no reason to feel mortified. Let’s get real — I’m sure it does help her career prospects. Even if you wish it weren’t a factor. However much we want to separate our sexuality and attraction, even if platonic attraction, in the workplace, the reality is that we cannot just disable and enable those parts of ourselves at will. Evolutionarily we are drawn to higher-status individuals — they increase our own status just by being around us. Since we are also biologically wired to associate attractiveness with status, it thus comes naturally to us to want to be around those people in all sorts of situations (including work situations). We are also naturally inclined to perceive them as more intelligent, more competent, and more ambitious — which helps explain why good-looking people have such an easier time being elected to public office and why that tall, fit salesperson seems to magically close so many deals. Attractive people in one study were found to make $230,000 more on average than unattractive people (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970203687504576655331418204842). Of course, we can speculate both on the methodology of the study and the causality, but would any of us be surprised that the correlation exists? Throw your sexual orientation into the mix as well and who can blame you for thinking others would also want to be around a hot Asian chick regardless of context?
    Also, I’m almost certain that part of the reason you felt mortified was simply due to the double standard imposed by men; as women, we’re allowed to objectify you as much as we want both in and out of the workplace (and behind closed doors and within private IM windows, we do so with gusto), but god forbid you even glance at our legs in a professional environment because OMG YOU PIG YOU’RE JUST THE KIND OF MAN JEZEBEL COMMENTERS WARNED ME ABOUT.

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