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‘Lean In’ author Sheryl Sandberg needs to ‘lean on’ the workplace

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, speaks at a luncheon for the American Society of News Editors in San Diego in 2011. AP Photo/Gregory Bull.

Gregory Bull/AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, speaks at a luncheon for the American Society of News Editors in San Diego in 2011.

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,’’ has sparked enormous debate and controversy — and that began before its actual release on March 11. Without the benefit of reading her words, but relying on the publicity blitz that catapulted the book to best seller status based on pre-orders alone, thousands have weighed in on Sandberg’s call for women to “lean in” and more aggressively pursue their ambitions.

The passion that spills from so many of these early responses demonstrates just how difficult it is for women who are navigating the difficult terrain of work, career success, and family responsibilities. As Sandberg points out, women have been stuck in the quicksand of bad — and sometimes worsening — statistics for decades. Even as women have outnumbered men in college and graduate schools and have poured into the workplace in nearly equal numbers for decades, we have made little headway in achieving the top leadership jobs, the corporate board seats, or in shrinking the vast gender gap in compensation.

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Sandberg’s response to the considerable body of research regarding the biases that thwart women’s advancement is to conclude that women lean back prematurely and avoid seizing leadership opportunities that could propel their careers forward. Her research, combined with anecdotes from her own experiences, provides a compelling and often inspirational narrative.

As someone who spends much of my professional life focusing on women’s leadership and advancement, I love Sandberg’s thoughtful advice to women. My hope, however, is that she will use her considerable platform to address the workplace norms and practices that are more of an impediment than our own fears and inhibitions.

Sandberg clearly recognizes that these issues need to be addressed. Her route to such structural change, however, is to increase the number of women who will stay engaged in their careers. Doing so, she argues, will change the power structure and expand opportunities: “More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all.”

I hope so. But the equally noisy media reaction to Sandberg’s former Google colleague, Marissa Mayer, provides a cautionary tale. Sandberg posits that criticism of Mayer’s decision to take a 2-week maternity leave as the new CEO of Yahoo ignored the parenting role of Mayer’s husband and the breakthrough importance of her position. The book was presumably in print before Mayer’s subsequent decision to require all Yahoo workers to cease working remotely, and before Mayer built a personal nursery adjoining her office to address her own workplace flexibility needs.

The juxtaposition of these two women leaders is important. Leaders are role models, whether they choose to be or not. And people who are in minority positions are always being watched.

I recall vividly the time my husband, then in his young 20s, was lectured by a close friend when he planned to work on one of the major Jewish holidays. As a young lawyer, he was anxious to prove his commitment to his job. Her response was adamant: By showing up for work, he would be sending a message to leaders in the workplace that it is OK to expect others to do the same. After all, they were not going to differentiate among their very few Jewish employees when presented with mixed messages. Rather, they would judge by the one who most exhibited commitment through his presence. He stayed home. And neither of us has ever forgotten the important lesson about symbolism in the workplace.

We need our male and female leaders to think structurally, even as they seek to achieve personally. Individual success is hollow if it is at the expense of workers who are unable to meet the demands of the workplace and the needs of their families.

If the cadre of female leadership Sandberg hopes to build brings her passion for change to their roles, then there is reason for optimism. Few female executives have taken the courageous ownership that Sandberg has of the data on unconscious bias, of the importance of women supporting other women, and of the need for our homes to be as egalitarian as we want our workplaces to be. If women come away from her book willing to similarly use their power to change the norms and structures of the workplace, then change can happen.

But until there are enough women in those key roles willing to similarly use their power, we need Sandberg to “lean on” the workplace. With her considerable clout, Sandberg could lead the revolution the workplace needs the most: changing the gendered norms that stymie the careers of ambitious women who do not lean out, but are pushed out by a rigid workplace. Ironically, it is the combination of visionary leadership and technology that can ultimately propel the workplace revolution that Sandberg identifies.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family in the Carroll School of Management. The author of “Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law and Success Strategies for Women Lawyers,’’ she is writing a book about Millennials in the workplace.
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