With all of the attention Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” is getting, it’s probably one of those books you feel like you should read. Except, quite frankly, between all that “leaning in” you’re doing at work and all those responsibilities you’re dividing up at home, reading an actual book calls for something you no longer have: free time.
That’s why we’ve done it for you. Below, we list enough highlights from the Facebook COO’s “sort of feminist manifesto” to get you through a water cooler conversation or some happy hour chatter. How to answer three likely questions to sound like you’ve read the hot book du jour:
>>So can you relate to her at all in the book? Sandberg has caught plenty of flak for being a wealthy woman (and we mean really wealthy) trying to talk to others about balancing work and family life. The anecdote about discovering lice in her daughter’s hair while riding on an eBay private jet, for instance, has gotten plenty of airtime as evidence that Sandberg is not in tune with the average working mother’s plight. And the chapter titled “Make Your Partner a Real Partner,” in which Sandberg advocates finding a spouse who will split the workload 50-50 at home, leaves something wanting. When you can afford all the household and child-care help you’d ever need, a helpful husband sounds like only part of your fortunate solution.
Still, Sandberg is personally revealing in other ways that make her far more accessible than so many reviewers have let on. She gained 70 pounds in her first pregnancy and had morning sickness the whole nine months. She got married at 24 and was divorced a year later. It took her a year to find a job in Silicon Valley. She’s been the subject of sexist comments, such as the client who wanted to set her up with his son. She’s cried at work (many times, apparently). And throughout her life and career, she confesses to having felt at times like an imposter. She admits, repeatedly, to worrying too much about being liked.
Sandberg may have resources most of us could only dream of, making it hard to identify with some of the passages about work-life balance (a phrase she knocks, thankfully). But for professional women — who are clearly the book’s audience — many of the other revealing personal stories she shares do make her book a relatable and, yes, likeable read.
>>What did you learn? Sandberg’s book is chock-full of demographic, social science and workplace research that feels overly familiar at times. But she also includes a number of surprising studies that make for perfect cocktail party talk, as well as provide inspiration for changing the way we think. For instance, she writes about a 2008 study that found that when girls are reminded of their gender before taking a test — even by simply checking an “M” or an “F” at the start of the exam — they don’t perform as well. Disturbing. And who knew that the U.S. Census Bureau calls it “care” when fathers watch the kids while the mother is at work, yet when mothers do the same it’s simply “parenting”? It also considers mothers the “designated parent” when both mommy and daddy are present in the home.
And for any working moms who feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids, Sandberg provides some illuminating — and reassuring — figures. In 1975, stay-at-home mothers reported spending an average of 11 hours a week on primary child care, while those employed outside the home said they spent six hours doing the same. Twenty-five years later, as expectations have risen for how involved parents should be in their kids’ lives, employed mothers reported spending 11 hours on childcare. So in a sense, working moms today are spending just as much time with their kids as the stay-at-home moms of yesteryear did.
>>So would you recommend it? Sandberg’s book has its flaws, but at 173 pages it’s a quick read that’s worth it — if you have the time. Yes, the working-mom stories sometimes felt off key. I’ve never heard a breast pump that sounds like a fire truck (as Sandberg described hers to her colleagues) and the example of the executive who asked her boyfriend to join her on a work trip to Sao Paulo will resonate with only a few. For many women not in the managerial ranks, logging back on after dinner after leaving work at 5:30 isn’t “flextime” (as Sandberg calls her schedule), it’s overtime. And I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel if a senior executive — male or female — asked me whether I was considering having a baby, a tactic Sandberg advocates.
But that misses the point. Reviewers who’ve asked whether Sandberg is the best spokesperson on the work-family debate focus too much on how she’s managed it as a mother and not enough on how she’s managed it as a leader. The takeaways Sandberg offers about negotiation, mentorship and communication are helpful for any reader — women especially, but also men.
For example, one of the best anecdotes in the book shares how she negotiated her compensation with Mark Zuckerberg. Uncomfortable with negotiation (aren’t we all?), Sandberg didn’t lay out why she could make more at Google or simply why her skills were worth more. Rather, she prefaced her request with “of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” He upped his offer.
She encourages young women (though the same could apply to young men) not to “get a mentor and you will excel,” but to “excel and you will get a mentor.” She relays how women can be pushy without being seen as domineering — a sense of humor is key — and how getting cursed at by now-New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly taught her to start a working relationship by asking how you can help, first. She tells the story of four Merrill Lynch executive women who had lunch once a month so they could catch up on each other’s accomplishments. They would then go back to the office and share the other’s achievements with colleagues and higher-ups to keep from looking like they were bragging about themselves. Their careers flourished as a result.
We have enough women telling us how they manage (or mismanage) the work-family juggle. What we don’t have is enough women in the top ranks of Corporate America sharing how they navigate the nuanced communication, negotiation and relationship issues that are particularly challenging for women at the top but that, in some ways, affect us all.
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