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.
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.”
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