Book Review of Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

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This Book Review of Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg is brought to you from Alexandra Durkee from the Titans of Investing.

Genre: Economic History
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Title: Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead (Buy the Book)


In 2010, Sheryl Sandberg gave a TED Talk where she described the barriers women face and how women unintentionally hold themselves back. The sensation that followed encouraged her to share her experience and advice in her book Lean In. Throughout the book she refers to hard data and research to support her statements, and she supplements this data with personal anecdotes.

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Sandberg begins Lean In by saying that women need to internalize the revolution. Women face many external barriers. However, they also face many barriers internally. These internal barriers can be broken for women who make a conscious effort to change.

When women stop unintentionally holding themselves back, a world of possibilities can open. Sandberg does not suggest that this is a fix-all for the many problems women face, but it is a great place to start.

Sandberg discusses the following relevant barriers that women might face at work and at home, and gives suggestions on how to mitigate them:

  • A leadership ambition gap exists. This is described as more men aspiring to reach top-level leadership positions than women do.
  • Women need to “sit at the table.” To sit at the table, women actively participate and take initiative.
  • Successand likeability are two factors that plague women at work. These two factors tend to be positively correlated for men, but negatively correlated for women.
  • Women need to stop viewing their career as a ladder. If women were to look at their careers as more of a jungle gym, there would be more opportunities for movement and a variety of ways to get to the top.
  • Having mentorship is crucial for women, but women need to be open to the feedback the mentor gives and the role that the mentor serves in their careers.
  • Women must seek and provide authentic communication and feedback.
  • Women should not “leave before they leave.” In other words, they should not enter the workforce already planning an exit.
  • Women need to make their partners “real partners.” Find the men that will support women and will be equal partners at home.
  • Women need to drop the balancing act and realize that being able to “do it all” is a myth.
  • Women need to start talking about the differences between genders and work together towards equality. The following brief examines each of the barriers discussed above in more detail. Sandberg makes several valid points throughout the book about the barriers women face, and she offers ways to mitigate those barriers. Her advice can be categorized into three broad takeaways. Women must sit at the table, seek challenges, and lean in to their endeavors to accomplish their goals.


Today, women in the U.S. are better off than ever before. This is due, in large part, to their predecessors who paved the way to make many women’s achievements possible today. These women fought for the rights that many women often take for granted. Such basic rights as voting were not possible for women even 100 years ago.

Yet, other countries still deny some women the most basic rights that women in the U.S. are able to enjoy. This should make women even more grateful. However, gratitude should not equate to complacency. As Sandberg states, “knowing things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better.”

These actions could be as simple as asking for reserved parking for pregnant women at work which Sandberg did successfully while working at Google.

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For the most part, women have ceased in making progress to the top of any industry, while they continue to outpace men in educational achievements. Warren Buffett has pointed out that one of the reasons he has been so successful is that he only had to compete with half of the population.

While there are many external factors that might hold women back, there are internal barriers as well.

Sandberg states, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self- confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” These internal barriers deserve thoughtful consideration because women have the ability to exercise control over them.

While these internal struggles do not plague all women in the same way, most women can relate to them. Sandberg’s purpose in writing Lean In is to encourage women to feel empowered and to lean in to their ambitions, whatever they may be.


“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” –Sheryl Sandberg

Even though women are beginning to outpace men in educational achievements, the same cannot be said for the workplace. Competition is strong between men and women for entry-level positions, but further up the corporate ladder it is a different story.

Less and less women compete for leadership positions leaving men to fill the positions at the top. One major contributor to this is the leadership ambition gap. Plainly stated, more men than women aspire to reach top-level leadership positions.

The leadership ambition gap does not start as women are beginning their careers.

It begins at a much earlier age. As babies, girls’ crawling abilities are underestimated compared to boys’ crawling abilities, which tend to be overestimated. When young boys lead or take charge of a group, this is no surprise. However, his female counterpart might be labeled as “bossy” on the playground.

Sandberg relays a story about onesies sold at Gymboree that said “Smart like Daddy” for boys and “Pretty like Mommy” for girls. Starting at an early age and continuing through adulthood, women internalize these societal cues. Women begin to hold themselves back for fear of disapproval, and this is where the ambition gap begins, Sandberg states.

Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face.

Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure and the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother, wife, or daughter.

How can women begin to break down these internal barriers and fears to close the gap? One way to start is by asking yourself, what would you do if you were not afraid?

Sit At The Table

Besides the literal meaning of sitting at the table, what does it mean in Sandberg’s context? She starts to explain “Sitting at the Table” by telling a story of when she hosted a meeting at Facebook for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

When it was time for everyone to take their seats, his staff, composed entirely of women, all sat along the edge of the boardroom. Sandberg extended an invitation for them to join the table. They insisted they would remain where they were.

With that one action, the women pulled themselves out of the discussion. They had the opportunity to be active participants, but chose to be spectators. But, why? So much of a woman’s battle occurs within.

Self-doubt often plagues women

When women are praised for achievement, they will often discount their work by commending others for their help or simply leaving it up to luck. In contrast, men credit their successes to their superior talent.

Sandberg states, “studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is.” Feelings of self-doubt can escalate to fears of failure.

Women internalize this fear of failure, which ultimately impacts future performance. Women can be very self-critical. This leads to lower levels of confidence which impacts future performance.

Many have heard the saying “fake it till you make it.”

Well, there is science to support it. Simple changes such as smiling and taking on a more powerful pose for two minutes can have a significant impact on attitude and demeanor. Amy Cuddy suggests that instead of “fake it till you make it” the saying should be “fake it till you believe it.”

If women internalize positive thoughts, they will become more confident. Their actions will portray that confidence. And, maybe then, more women will sit at the table.

Sheryl Sandberg tells of a speech she gave at Facebook. After the speech, she took questions. Towards the end of Q&A, she announced she would only take two more questions.

Afterwards, a junior female colleague approached Sandberg to tell her that she learned something that day. She learned to “keep her hand up” explaining that after Sandberg made her announcement she continued to answer more than the two questions from the men who kept their hands raised, while most of the women did not.

The more women raise their hands and keep them raised, the more women will be heard.

The more women switch from spectating to actively participating, the more confident and empowered they will become. So, what does “sit at the table” mean? Sitting at the table means taking initiative and breaking out of your comfort zone. It means physically sitting at the table and actively contributing.

It means receiving praise and credit for accomplishments graciously. Sometimes, it means “faking it till you believe it.” It means keeping your hand up so you can be heard. Sitting at the table means taking a necessary step to lean in to your ambitions, whatever they may be.


Men and women can be viewed as equally likeable, but this is not always true in the context of the workplace. For example, Sandberg refers to the Harvard business case of Howard and Heidi. The case describes how a female entrepreneur named Heidi became very successful.

Using the exact same case, the name was changed from Heidi to Howard. Two groups of students read the respective cases with the only difference being the name change. Afterwards, researchers surveyed the students.

Both groups viewed Howard and Heidi’s accomplishments as equal. However, students viewed Howard as the more appealing colleague. Research shows that success and likeability are positively correlated for men but negatively correlated for women.

Women fight an uphill battle when it comes to success and likeability.

Women are often viewed as more nurturing than men. When a woman is seen as nice and nurturing, she is often considered less competent. When a woman is seen as more competent, she does not seem as nice. Women being viewed as more nurturing and communal in nature can lead to the “gender discount” problem.

When women offer help, the sense of indebtedness to return the favor is weaker than it is for a male colleague. Ultimately, a woman’s presumed desire to be communal can negatively impact her professionally. However, there are benefits to being communal.

Women can advocate for themselves with a communal approach. Teams work better with communal leaders and team members. Cohesive teams will outperform teams that do not work well together. Therefore, having more women at the top of organizations could translate to more leaders, both men and women, acting communally to create high-performing teams and organizations.

Also, owning one’s success is key to achieving more success. As discussed earlier, women sometimes credit their success to external factors. Instead, women should own their success to build their confidence.

A strong desire to be liked by everyone can hold women back. When making decisions, not every stakeholder can be pleased. Those decisions might lead to necessary changes, though. If women try to please everyone, they might not be making the best decisions.


“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.” –Eric Schmidt

At Facebook, Lori Goler approached Sandberg about the opportunity to work at Facebook.

Before Goler made the phone call, she thought about telling all the things she was good at and what she liked to do. Instead, she decided to differentiate herself by stretching outside of her comfort zone of Marketing. She asked: “What is your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?” This approach landed Goler in a recruiting role at Facebook.

Goler describes careers as jungle gyms instead of ladders. On ladders, you can only move up or down, on or off. On a jungle gym, there are many more opportunities for movement and a variety of ways to get to the top.

“The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off.”

Currently, there are not as many “lifers,” or people who stay at one company for their entire career. Even if an employee wanted to be a lifer staying with one company, a career can still be a jungle gym.

Corporations have such diverse opportunities for their employees. One might start out in Sales, move to Marketing, take a leadership role in Commercial/Trading, and finish in Treasury all within the same company.

How should women go about managing their careers?

First, women should be more open to taking risks. External pressures sometimes force women to “play it safe.” Stretch assignments are great learning opportunities and development tools, but women often avoid these assignments out of fear that they will not be able to meet the challenges presented.

Women tend to stay in their comfort zone. If women were to view stretch assignments as more of a learning experience instead of an insurmountable challenge, they would expand their skill-set and prepare themselves for promotions and leadership roles in the future.

Women should look for companies that have fast growth potential.

These companies will have ample opportunity because growth will require more employees than the current supply. On the other hand, companies with slow to no growth will become stagnant and limit the opportunities for employees because there are too many people for the required work. Working for a company with more growth potential offers more opportunities on the jungle gym.

Both women and men should have long-term dreams and realizable short-term goals. Sandberg gives an example of having an 18-month plan where she sets goals on two fronts. She sets goals based on what she wants her team to accomplish.

Additionally, she sets more personal goals. These could be anything from learning new skills, conquering fears, or correcting bad habits. Setting short-term goals that play into the bigger picture of long-term dreams, allows you to better focus on the direction you want to go to reach the top of the jungle gym.


“I realized that searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.” –Sheryl Sandberg

Many women feel a dire need to have a mentor. We have brought this strong desire on ourselves when we make it the number one topic discussed at forums and seminars. Sandberg relates the search for a mentor to waiting for Prince Charming. While mentorship and sponsorship are crucial to career advancement, this has the potential to lead women to depend too much on others.

Acquiring a true mentor can be a challenge.

When mentors are looking for mentees, they look at performance and potential first. People want to invest in others who can really benefit from their advice and support. To capture the attention of a potential mentor, prepare questions tailored to the individual.

For continued investment from mentors, mentees must use their time well and be open to feedback. The mentor/mentee relationship is often more reciprocal than one thinks. The mentee receives direct advice, while the mentor experiences benefits as well, such as the feeling of pride in the mentee and greater commitment from colleagues.

One scenario Sandberg touches on is the mentoring relationships between junior women and senior men, or the lack of it. Misinterpretations of the mentoring relationship can lead to a lack of “reaching out” by senior men to junior women. Until we stop making assumptions surrounding the interactions between men and women, it will be more difficult to cultivate those mentorships.

Finding a mentor can be instrumental to a woman’s career. It is important to find the right mentor or sponsor and be fully open to all the advice and feedback that comes with the mentorship. Without a sponsor, a woman’s climb to the top is more challenging and will often stall. However, if you have to ask someone if he or she is your mentor, you might need to keep looking.


Authentic communication is the key to successful relationships, both personal and professional. However, it is not easy for some. People show their hesitancy in authentic communication by statement hedging which can be even more prevalent in women when considering power dynamics.

The internal fear of appearing nagging or critical, or even worse, receiving criticism, prevents women from engaging in authentic communication. This type of honest communication does not mean that we should not have a filter. Finding the delicate balance between authenticity and appropriateness is crucial.

First, truth is rarely absolute.

For example, while window-shopping with a friend, you see a black dress. Both of you can agree that the dress is black. That is absolute. Opinions can quickly differ on whether the dress is aesthetically pleasing, though. We must strive to understand differences in opinion. By shedding light on these differences, communication becomes more effective and beneficial to both parties.

Communication is not a one-way street. Listening is a key element, if not the most important element, when communicating. Often in a conversation, you can tell when a person is forming a rebuttal or response to what you are saying before you even finish your statement.

When this occurs, communication becomes less effective. Both men and women want to feel like their statements are being received. An effective way to show this is to acknowledge another’s statements before continuing with your response.

Seeking the truth means seeking feedback.

Being open to receive feedback is the first step. Women, and men for that matter, often want feedback, but are not ready to hear what others have to say. Until a woman is fully ready to accept feedback, both positive and negative, the ability to listen will be diminished.

When women become closed off for fear of criticism or perceived failure, they stop seeking the truth. Seeking the truth becomes a source of continued negative feedback internally. Women must first break down those internal walls to be open to feedback. From there, effective communication flourishes and relationships can become more successful.

Also, thanking others for their feedback is crucial because it encourages the lines of communication to remain open when people think they are in a safe environment to express their opinions freely.

Speaking your truth means giving feedback. Many women often hold back when it comes to giving feedback out of fear of hurting another’s feelings or appearing to be nagging. If those lines of authentic communication are open, women need to be able to reciprocate with their feedback for others.

Humor can be a great tool to deliver a message in a more delicate and lighthearted way; obviously, humor should not be used in every situation. Some of the most effective leaders are frequently described as having a sense of humor.

When seeking and speaking your truth, it is important to remember a few things for communication to remain effective. Listen to what others are saying. Say “thank you” when receiving feedback, both positive and negative. It can be very hard for others to give critical feedback, so saying “thank you” encourages those lines of communication to remain open.

Also, do not hold back. The only way to have authentic communication is if you actually have it. As soon as you hold back, those lines begin to close. Finally, honesty is important, but always try to deliver an honest message delicately.


“Don’t enter the workforce already looking for the exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate.” – Sheryl Sandberg

One of the biggest ways women can hold themselves back is leaving before they leave

What does this mean? Imagine a woman in her mid-20s. She might be married, engaged, or at least in a serious relationship. Management sees a lot of talent in her and offers her a great opportunity, possibly a stretch role, to further develop her potential.

First, as discussed earlier, she questions her ability to take on the stretch role, asking herself, “Do I have the skills required to even accomplish this job?” After accepting that she will learn on the job, she begins to consider something else: how children might play into the scenario. She does not have children but expects that she will sometime in the future.

She questions if the job will be a good fit in her future plans and she ultimately declines the job based on her future expectations. She is leaving before she leaves.

When women pull themselves out of the competition early, they set themselves back, often unintentionally. Imagine if the 20-something woman accepted the stretch role and had a baby two years later. After taking time off, she would return to a higher position than she would have, had she not taken the stretch role.

The more challenging and exciting a job is, the more desirable it is to return to work. If we encourage more women to stay in the game longer even with the expectations of having children in the future, more women will want to continue working toward the top of the jungle gym or at least staying on it.

Sandberg says that the time to scale back is when a child is actually in the picture.

The years leading up to having a child are a crucial period to be leaning in, not leaning back. This enables women to return to work at a higher position where they might feel more valued. Of course, returning to work after having a child might not be the best choice for every woman since each has unique circumstances.

But until it is time to make those decisions, women need to “keep their foot on the gas pedal.” They need to lean in more than they ever have, so they can return to a place where they want to be.


As women become more empowered at work, men must become more empowered at home. In households where both the mother and father have full-time employment, women still do approximately 40 percent more of the childcare and 30 percent more of the housework.

The most obvious reason for this discrepancy is the traditional gender roles being followed. At the same time, women need to learn to release some of their control over household duties. Almost every woman has thought at one time or another that it would be easier to shop the grocery list herself instead of letting her husband stop on the way home from work.

he thinks she is more effective and efficient navigating the aisles. While this could possibly be true, this is where women are at fault. Yes, maybe her husband would wander the aisles a little bit longer, and he might bring home non-organic milk. However, he would be actively participating in household duties, and be a real partner.

Of the women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 26 of the 28 women were married.

These women must depend on their husbands participating as equal partners. These men, like their successful wives, are leaning in to both their careers and their families. Sandberg stresses the importance of finding a life partner who wants to be an equal partner.

She advises that it is okay to date the “cool and bad guys,” but marry the ones who truly value smart, ambitious women. Find the man that wants to support your goals as much as you support his. Find the man that wants to be an equal partner in the home.

This needs to resonate with both men and women. Women in college or starting their careers need to know that these men will value them for who they are and support what they want to accomplish. Men in college or early in their careers need to see the exceptional qualities these women exemplify.

Both men and women, whether they are equal partners or not, need to stress this importance to their sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews. The next generation needs to understand what being valued as an equal partner in career goals and in the home looks like.

To make your partner a real partner, women must view him as equally capable in household duties and child-rearing. Only then will women get closer to the 50/50 ratio. Moreover, research shows that this equality in the home leads to happier relationships. Therefore, we all need to lean into making our marriages and relationships more equal.


The myth of “doing it all” is a stereotype that plagues women. The truth is that women cannot do it all, and men cannot either. Everything is a trade-off.

Going to work means that women will not be at home, and spending time with family means not taking as much time for themselves. The key to managing the organized chaos of life is deciding what is most important to you and your family, and what is not.

Sandberg tells a story from her summer internship at McKinsey & Company.

Employees came to her boss when they wanted to quit. The predominant reason for leaving was burn out, being tired of working the long hours and exhausted from traveling. Her boss did not understand why all of these employees had unused vacation time. They did everything demanded of them, but did little for themselves.

Both men and women should exert more control over their careers. The demands of the workplace will never stop, but a line needs to be drawn somewhere. To balance life and career, women must make deliberate choices by setting limits and actually sticking to them.

This is easier said than done for executives, though. The demands placed on these executives usually require swift action and involve much higher stakes. Does their job really allow them to draw the line?

The answer to this question most of the time is no. However, they make it work. “Work-life balance” is the buzzword of the 21st century. However, there is something wrong with this phrase. The word balance gives the impression that two items are equal, 50/50, in perfect harmony.

In the work-life scenario, almost nothing is in perfect harmony.

As soon as women start to think their careers and personal lives are balancing acts and strive to make them equal, they put themselves in a tailspin. In essence, women set themselves up for a feeling of failure because no matter how hard women try to maneuver this balancing act, work and life will never perfectly balance at a given point in time.

However, the silver lining is that once women realize that work and personal life can integrate well without always being 50/50 balanced, they can stop feeling guilty. Maybe this means missing a school party for an important meeting on the west coast.

Or, maybe it means leaving work early to attend a child’s championship soccer game. Either way, women can feel better about making a demanding career and personal life work in better harmony when they drop the balancing act.

Whatever a person is doing, he or she should fully engage. Being fully engaged means going all in, giving 100 percent of the attention to the task or activity at hand. In a world of multitaskers, people are often only 20 percent engaged.

With this lack of engaged behavior, it is no wonder that people work endlessly. Bosses want to see quality work, whether that quality work takes one hour or three hours to produce depends on the person. For the most part, employees’ performance is not evaluated based on the number of hours they clock in the office but on the quality of work they produce. Being fully engaged allows one to produce more quality work in less time by giving undivided attention.

Once women realize that no one can do it all, they can feel more liberated and be more productive. Women need to make the choices that are best for them by prioritizing what is important and, what is not, when it comes to their careers and personal lives.

After making those choices, women need to fully engage in the task at hand. Being unable to do it all does not mean that we cannot be the best mother, wife, daughter, coworker, and friend that we can be.


“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” –Harvard Business School

In the past, gender was not openly acknowledged. Gender differences have always been present, but only recently have we started talking about them. When we talk about these differences and how others perceive them, only then can we identify the barriers women face in the workplace and find solutions.

Even small changes by men and women can have a large impact. As Sandberg states, “talking can transform minds, which can transform behavior, which can transform institutions.” Ceasing discussion impedes progress. Men need to feel comfortable confronting and debating with women in the workplace so we can move toward more equality.

Bias can arise from people wanting to work with others like them. We all fall victim to this bias. However, we should want to work with the best whether they are men or women.


“Help me, help you.” –Jerry Maguire

To make opportunity truly equal, we must ensure that women receive the encouragement to strive for those opportunities. Women need to look out for each other because as individuals a woman’s power is relatively low. However, the collective power of women working together to make change is real power. Also, women need to view each other less as competitors and more as allies.

The more women help other women, the more they help the group and future generations, as a whole.

More than anything women want validation. They want validation for doing a job well done. They want validation for making the right choice of pursuing a career or a life at home.

Instead of judging others’ personal career choices, we should validate them and lift them up. What is right for one person might not be the best choice for another, and we must recognize that.

As more women work together and lean in, society will start utilizing the talents of the entire population. Institutions will be more productive. Homes will be happier. Children will be more inspired to follow their dreams. And maybe then, we will give Warren Buffett a run for his money.


Throughout this brief, I have frequently referred to leaning in to whatever it may be. What should make women feel most empowered is that we have the choice to lean in to any endeavor.

All the different ways women have opportunities to lean in should be a source of inspiration to both men and women around the world.

Whether a woman’s sole job is being the best mother she can be, the best senior trader at a firm, or the best executive at a multinational corporation, she can be an inspiration to others. Whatever you do day-in-and-day-out, do it with “your foot on the gas pedal.” Do it with confidence. Sit at the table, whether it be in the kitchen or in the boardroom.

Keep your hand raised. By leaning in and being the best you can be, you will inspire others around you to become better versions of themselves, and they, in turn, will begin to lean in. Imagine what the world would look like if both women and men leaned in a little more. By working together towards equality, we can make the world a better place. would like to thank the Titans of Investing for allowing us to publish this content. Titans is a student organization founded by Britt Harris. Learn more about the organization and the man behind it by clicking either of these links.

Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.

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