Five years ago, I found myself at a crisis point in my career. I was feeling restless and dissatisfied. I vaguely felt underpaid and underappreciated, in a male-dominated industry and company. While I had been successful, I was stuck. I didn’t know how to move forward, nor did I have the energy or courage to move. I had started looking for my next opportunity, but without any firm direction or goal.
I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg shortly after it published, five years ago this week. So had a couple of work friends. We each invited five women to be part of a “Lean In Circle” at the office, to follow up on the book’s advice. A group of about 15 women met for two hours every other month to work through the program and support one another.
“Lean In” changed my life. Today, I am at a much bigger and more prominent company, in a bigger job, with more pay, responsibility, challenge and energy. “Lean In” didn’t do this alone for me, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone, jump-started my career and opened my mind to what was possible.
A lot of people like to disparage “Lean In.” I wonder, did they actually read the book? They complain that Sheryl Sandberg approached the topic from a place of extraordinary prestige, wealth and privilege, as a Harvard graduate and COO of Facebook. Yes, she did. So what? I don’t understand how that invalidates what she has to say, as if the only “legitimate” women’s viewpoint on careers has to come from some hardscrabble perspective. And I really don’t understand why a “women attacking other women” viewpoint in op-eds and blogs is somehow more valid. There is a special place in hell reserved for successful women who don’t help other women succeed.
Here are several real-world examples coming from me, who came from a hardscrabble background, of how “Lean In” opened my eyes and helped me move forward:
Sexism: My manager at my old job was an older British man. I liked him and we got along well. But he did three things that really bothered me:
- He insisted I get a mentor.
- He socialized after work only with other men on our team. Me and other women were never invited.
- He said that me and another woman I worked on a project with lacked “gravitas” to present our project findings on the big stage at a department-wide offsite, so he recruited a man to present with us.
At the time, I didn’t see these things as sexist, but “Lean In” opened my eyes:
- Sheryl Sandberg wrote a lot about and how older people are always encouraging young women to get mentors. This push makes young women feel inadequate and forces them into artificial relationships with senior people who… you guessed it… make them feel even more inadequate. Mentors can be wonderful, but such a close relationship must develop organically.
- By not being invited to after-work events, I missed out on valuable face time with the boss. The men had better relationships and more insight into what the boss was doing and thinking.
- “Gravitas” is a fancy way of saying “you won’t be taken seriously.” The man who my boss pushed into the project ended up doing some harm to it because he had to throw his dick around.
Equal Pay: I pushed for better pay when I joined the company, but I was told “this is our offer, not up for negotiation.” I was getting paid more than at my last job and this was a big opportunity, so I accepted it. Once I got promoted into management, I got a small raise because it was in the middle of the budget year, with a vague promise I’d get more later. I wasn’t happy, but I was naive enough to trust the system. Then two things happened:
- I realized that most of the men who reported to me made more than me, and the lone woman on the team with equal experience to the men and at a higher position made even less. My complaints got me nowhere. I was never made whole and each year I sank a bit further back in pay equality because new people were brought in at higher salaries.
- I was a top performer and earned raises and bonuses regularly, but I still was underpaid. I earned about 85% of what peers from the “Lean In Circle” earned. And they were underpaid compared to men in similar positions.
“Lean In” opened my eyes:
- I didn’t understand how compensation works. If you are underpaid today, you will always be underpaid. The compensation system is rigged against you and no one will fix it.
- If you want to be paid more, you need to know your value and negotiate hard. I learned how to negotiate and how to calculate my value to get better pay and other perks at my new job.
Taking Risks: I am by nature rather risk-averse. I don’t seek thrills or take many chances in life. “Lean In” made me realize I was too comfortable where I was, not challenged enough or interested enough to find fulfillment at my job. I noticed a few things:
- My job was in a female ghetto – an operational role that was viewed as a cost center, not revenue-generating or otherwise contributing much to the bottom line. My boss took another job and I had a new female boss, who in turn reported to a woman, “Big Boss,” who was one of only two women leading our entire division. Only human resources had a higher proportion of women than our group did. Men made the decisions, and we women (for the most part) executed them.
- Women at my level within this group were moved around like chess pieces to satisfy whatever demand at the moment fell on Big Boss’s ears. These lateral moves were good for gaining experience, but they never seemed to lead to promotions or big opportunities, rather just putting out fires and shoring up crumbling walls. Some women had been at these types of tasks for 5 to 10 years! Strategic decisions came from a higher level they didn’t penetrate.
Because of “Lean In” I realized I needed to take chances in my career. The longer I stayed where I was, the harder it would be to move. There was a reorganization and Big Boss wanted me to take one of these lateral-move jobs. I had a meeting with her, where I laid my cards on the table and told her flatly what I wanted. She said no. So I left. I never would have had the courage to do this without “Lean In.”
Leaning In at Home: Sheryl Sandberg inspired the most vitriol with her insights into how to manage a work-life balance. Such a powerful and big earner of course could have endless nannies, maids, assistants and other helpers. She didn’t understand the struggles of single mothers, or of women whose partners also have demanding jobs and are unwilling or unable to take on more responsibilities at home. This is a valid criticism. And Sandberg herself viewed these challenges through a different lens when her husband suddenly died a few years ago. Also, I don’t have kids, so I can’t comment on the working mother dynamic. But this doesn’t mean that all of Sandberg’s ideas are bullshit.
- Just like at work, at home you also have to ask for what you want. Your partner and kids won’t read your mind.
- Your husband needs to be an equal partner, or you will tote around resentment along with all the housework, shopping, cooking and child care responsibilities. If he won’t meet you halfway before you’re married, you have no hope after you’re married.
- Don’t put your career on hold because you might get married, might have kids, or might have to care for aging parents. Do what you need to do at work. If personal life throws curveballs later on, deal with them then.
When I took my new job, which has a long commute and longer hours, I told my husband that he must take on some responsibilities at home, such as making dinner two or three nights a week (including cleaning up after), vacuuming, paying some bills and shopping for groceries as needed. He doesn’t like it, but he does it, and he acknowledges it’s fair. “Lean In” helped me craft these discussions with my husband, to get to a satisfactory agreement.
I think I will reread “Lean In” this month to see what else I could learn or other places where I disagree with Sandberg. I also wonder what other women think. Have you read the book? Did it help you?