Women are in a much better position today compared to past decades and centuries. Yet, there are still many obstacles holding women back from career progression. This represents lost opportunities not just for women, but also organizations and society at large. In this book, Sheryl Sandberg—one of the world’s most influential business executives—shares research and stories of the struggles faced by women, with advice on how we can create greater equality and more fulfilling lives for men and women alike. In this Lean In summary, you’ll learn how to overcome some of the internal and external barriers to gender inequality, and get additional insights on career advancement.
What is “Lean In” About?
Sheryl Sandberg shares a lot of research and real-world stories/anecdotes to show the extent of gender bias and inequality around us. However, instead of blaming men or systems for holding women back, she explains how women also unconsciously play a part due to their own fears and beliefs.
Sandberg believes that the solution to greater equality is to have more women in top leadership positions: This is the best way for women’s voices to be heard and considered, and it offers the best chance to address issues ranging from equal opportunities at work to helping rape victims in Liberia.
In a nutshell:
The Back Story for “Lean In”
In the past, Sandberg didn’t see herself as a “feminist”. She believed that to make her mark, she just had to work hard and deliver results. Yet, she soon realized that gender disparity was real. When Sandberg became the chief of staff at the Treasury Department, people suggested that she got the role because she was a woman, not because of merit. When she attended a meeting at a private equity firm, she couldn’t use a women’s bathroom because they didn’t have one. Over the years, she saw female friends and colleagues drop out of the workforce either by choice, or because they felt pressured to give up their career for their family.
Sandberg didn’t realize how hard it was to juggle a career and motherhood, until she got pregnant with her first child. She gained 70 pounds, had swollen feet and vomited daily. After the baby arrived, she struggled between her desire to spend time with her child and giving 100% to her job. This was despite the support from her company and family—something that many women didn’t even have.
Eventually, she realized that it wasn’t enough to keep her head down and work hard. Women faced real obstacles that wouldn’t go away on their own. So, she started to speak up about gender issues. Her TEDTalk “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” brought of a flood of responses from men and women alike. It convinced her of the need for more people to speak out, and motivated her to write this book.
In this book, Lean In, Sandberg addresses challenges that women face in balancing work and family. She presents research and statistics to make her case for gender equality, offers practical advice for career advancement, and shares insights for men and women to overcome gender bias and fulfill their potential.
The insights are useful for:
• Any woman who wants to pursue her goals and ambitions (including those who want to make it to the top); and
• Any man who wants to understand what the women around him are up against, and how to become a better leader.
Overcoming Obstacles to Gender Equality
Sandberg starts by sharing facts and data to show that our world is still ruled by men. For example, when this book was written, women led only 17 out 195 independent countries worldwide, and held 20% of parliamentary seats globally. In the USA, only 21 out of the Fortune 500 CEOs were women. The gap was even bigger for women of color.
In some countries, women are still denied basic civil rights and education. Millions of girls and women are trapped in the sex trade. In some places, it’s still common for women to be raped or abused sexually.
In a world of true equality, women would hold half the leadership positions and men would run half the homes. Sandberg shares research to suggest how this could create better outcomes all round—from harnessing the benefits of diversity at work, to developing better cognitive and psychological outcomes in children, and improving relationships between couples.
However, for more women to rise to the top, we must first address a range of internal and external obstacles. In the 11 chapters of the book, Sandberg addresses several issues and challenges across 3 broad themes:
We’ll now dive into some of these issues in detail. Do get our full 15-page Lean In summary for a more detailed breakdown of all the key insights in the book!
Overcoming Social and Internal Barriers
Our beliefs and choices are strongly influenced by cultural biases and social conditioning. Many gender biases—including those held by women themselves—hold women back from their careers.
Sandberg addresses (i) several gender-related stereotypes, biases and social pressures, and (ii) a range of internal barriers that women need to overcome. Here are 2 such examples.
Example 1: Sitting At the Table
Sandberg shares a personal story that shows how women unintentionally limit themselves. She was hosting a meeting and invited 15 executives for breakfast. The men took their food and sat at the main conference table, while the women took their food after the men, then sat at the side of the room and declined to shift to the main table. When Sandberg pointed this out after the meeting, the women were surprised—they hadn’t realized that they were watching from the sidelines even though they had every right to sit at the table.
Compared to men, women are more prone to dismiss their successes and internalize their failures, leading to a deep sense of insecurity. Women are more likely to attribute their success to external factors such as luck, hard work, or help from others. Men are more likely to attribute their success to their own skills and qualities. Men are also more likely to attribute failures to external factors while women are more likely to blame themselves for a lack of skill/ability.
In 2011, Sandberg was ranked 5th in Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women. Instead of feeling powerful, she felt exposed and embarrassed. She kept saying that the list was ridiculous—until one of her colleagues advised her to just lean in and accept the compliments with a “thank you.”
We live in a fast-moving world where opportunities slip by if you don’t reach out and grab them. To succeed, women must become more confident.
• If you’re a woman, learn to put yourself forward so you can get noticed and make an impact. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to come along. You don’t need perfect skills or experience to succeed; you just need the ability to learn quickly.
• If you’re a leader or manager, realize that women are more likely to hold back. Make a deliberate effort to encourage women to step forward and contribute.
Example 2: Success and Likeability
Several research studies suggest that successful men are liked, while successful women aren’t. Successful women are often seen as aggressive, untrustworthy, difficult, and less of a team player.
In an experiment, 2 professors shared a story with their students. The story was about a successful, outgoing individual, with 1 variation—the character in 1 story was a man (Howard), while the other was a woman (Heidi). The students were then polled on their impressions of Howard and Heidi. Both characters were respected for their competence. However, the students liked Howard more than Heidi. They saw Heidi as a selfish person they didn’t want to hire or work for.
Why? Men are expected to be decisive and driven, while women are expected to be sensitive and nurturing. Heidi was disliked because she violated people’s stereotypical expectations.
Faced with this conundrum, many women mute their achievements and dare not negotiate for themselves, e.g. to push for a higher salary or promotion. On the other hand, men can claim credit for their achievements without similar social/professional costs.
To address this difficulty, Professor Hannah Riley Bowles recommends 2 solutions for women:
• Present your personal requests/achievements communally using “we” instead of “I” (e.g. “we did well this year”, not “I did well this year”).
• Offer a valid reason for your request, e.g. “My manager suggested that I speak with you about my compensation” or “This is below the industry standards”.
The book includes many of similar social/internal barriers, such as different gender expectations for behaviors/parenthood/career vs family, and the lack of organizational flexibility and support. Feel free to check out our complete Lean In summary for more details.
Advancing in your Career
Besides gender biases and internal fears/beliefs, women need to adopt sound strategies and tips to improve their chances of career advancement and success. Sheryl Sandberg also touches on that by addressing the role of multiple career paths, mentorship, communication, and bringing your whole self to work. Here’s an example:
Exploring Different Career Paths
Don’t think of climbing a career ladder as it limits your thinking to 1 narrow track. Think of your career as a jungle gym with many ways to get to the top. Specifically:
• Don’t look for a perfect role that fits your skills and interests. Instead, ask: what’s the company’s biggest problem and how can I solve it? Then, do whatever it takes to address that problem—be it to learn new skills or work your way up from a lower level.
• Don’t try to map out your entire career from the onset. Instead, set 2 goals concurrently:
(i) A long-term dream, e.g. a career that allows you to travel the world, or to fulfill a specific purpose.
(ii) An 18-month plan to move toward your dream, including goals for (i) your team and (ii) your personal development.
Sandberg shared her own journey of growth and discovery as she moved from the World Bank to the Treasury Department, then made the leap to Google, and finally to Facebook. Her advice: choose jobs/roles that have the greatest potential for growth. Then, challenge yourself, take risks, and have the courage to ask for bigger roles and promotions.
More career tips can be found in our full Lean In summary :)
Working together toward equality
Gender equality can bring better outcomes for everyone, and we need the support of both men and women to make it happen. Sheryl Sandberg envisages a world where women have real choices to pursue their ambitions at work, and men have real choices to pursue their ambitions at home. This requires both men and women to understand the impact of gender stereotypes and biases, and to forge a true partnership to address/transcend our differences.
For instance, many couples don’t explicitly discuss how they’ll share the role of parenting. When the baby arrives, the mother simply takes on the main caregiving role on top of the housework and her job. Men may be contributing more at home, but the split is still far from 50-50.
Gender equality applies to men too. Men can be effective caregivers, yet social expectations make it hard for them to play that role even if they wish to. Men who leave their job to look after their family often feel ostracized and isolated. They also feel less fulfilled and successful since their professional successes tend to be measured in comparison to their wives’.
• Sandberg urges governments and companies to implement policies to allow men to play a bigger role at home. For instance, they can offer equal time for maternal and paternal leave, and encourage more people to use their family leave.
• Women must also play a part. Don’t criticize everything your husband does, or insist on doing things your way. Responsibility can only be shared if both parties have the freedom to figure out how best to accomplish their roles.
She encourages more people to join in the conversation on what we can do to create a more equal world where both women and men can live happier, more fulfilling lives.
Getting More from “Lean In”
Ultimately, feminism isn’t about proving a point or getting one-up on others. It’s about giving women the freedom to make real choices. Sandberg acknowledges that not every woman wants a career and a family. Some don’t care about power and influence, while others are struggling just to survive and make ends meet. Yet, she strongly believes that having more women in leadership roles is the best way to improve opportunities for women from all walks of life. If you’d like to learn more about Sandberg’s message, observations and advice, do check out our full book summary bundle that includes an infographic, 15-page text summary, and a 23-minute audio summary.
This book is written with humor, candor, and vulnerability, and packed with (i) Sandberg’s personal experiences, (ii) stories of women she has encountered, as well as (iii) a wide range of research and statistics to support her observations and recommendations. It’s a must-read for any ambitious woman who wants to have a successful career, and for anyone who believes in creating greater gender equality. You can purchase the book here, join the conversation at facebook.com/leaninorg, or visit leanin.org for more details and resources.
About the Author of Lean In
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was written by Sheryl Sandberg–an American technology executive, philanthropist, consultant, and writer. Sandberg served as chief operating officer (COO) of Meta Platforms (previously Facebook). She stepped down as COO in 2022 but remained on Meta’s board. She’s also the founder of LeanIn.Org. Prior to joining Facebook, Sandberg was vice president of global online sales and operations at Google. Before that, she served as research assistant to Lawrence Summers at the World Bank, and subsequently as his chief of staff when he was the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. In 2012, Sandberg was named in Time 100 as one of the most influential people globally. Forbes Magazine estimated her net worth at US$1.7 billion in 2021.
Lean In Quotes
“Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
“Personal choices are not always as personal as they appear. We are all influenced by social conventions, peer pressure, and familial expectations.”
“You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around.”
“Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders— including female leaders themselves.”
“We are so rarely brave enough to tell the truth.”
“Guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers.”
“As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home.”
“Success is making the best choices we can…and accepting them.”
“Every job will demand some sacrifice. The key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice.”
“Instead of ignoring our differences, we need to accept and transcend them.”