Book: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Publisher: WH Allen
Price: ₹ 499
When you enter the workforce, you enter armed with the knowledge of what professional conduct implies: how to dress, how to speak, how to behave in a general workplace situation. But as women, what we can never foretell and therefore are unprepared for, even today, is being at the receiving end of gender bias. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, devoted mother and career-woman and excelling at both roles simultaneously, has written Lean In to bridge this very gap. It is meant to enable women to identify gender bias, deal with it, confront both external and internal demons, and yes, achieve it all. In her own words, Lean In is "a sort-of feminist agenda".
Lean In takes you through Sheryl's own career spanning McKinsey, the chief of staff for the United States Department of Treasury, Google and finally, Facebook. A journey that equips her to offer solid insights on how, unknowingly, women tend to stand in the way of their own success. In a nutshell, the point she's trying to make is that women need to believe in themselves and not doubt their ability to juggle family and work and to, quite literally, lean in and treat their partners as equal partners.
She talks, among other things, of the guilt women sometimes feel when praised for doing good work (the I'm-a-fraud-and-they're-going-to-find-out problem), the pressure of trying to do it all (If I excel at work, I must be failing as a wife and mother), and the innate lack of confidence most women suffer from as a result of traditional gender expectations and the secret fear that we'll not stack up against the men we work with in the long run. Prerna Wadhawan, 29, an assistant director from Mumbai, admits to these feelings. "As women, we tend to let other people take credit for the things we do. Somewhere along the way we start believing that these other people actually contributed more than we thought they did, sabotaging ourselves in the process. It was surprising to see Sheryl talk about this, I wasn't aware it was such a common thing for women."
Sandberg's contention that it's easier to be confident when you know your role models felt the same doubts, is spot on. The book is peppered with retellings of her own weakest moments-taking 'most likely to succeed' off her yearbook for fear of damaging her chances of finding a date for the prom, and never flaunting her Henry Ford scholarship during business school. "I instinctively knew that letting my academic performance become known was a bad idea...Being at the top of the class may have made life easier for my male peers, but it would have made my life harder."
While an excellent read in itself, one has to wonder how much relevance the book has for women in the Indian workforce. Does it bridge the cultural gap enough to be of value to women back home? To a very large extent, it does.
Neha Majithia, 28, co-founder of Covalence in Mumbai, says, "Having lived and worked in both India and USA, it's obvious that there's a huge difference in the work culture. In India, being a woman is still a stigma. While abroad it's illegal to ask a potential female employee if she is planning on having a baby, here it's a run-of-the-mill question. That being said, the book offers a lot of positive reinforcement for women everywhere who face gender biases at work. I think it's a great read not just for women, but men too, so that they understand the issues women face and learn to be 'equal partners', as Sheryl puts it."
Srini Swaminathan, 33, alumnus of Teach For India, agrees. "Indian women go through difficulties right from school and college. It's obvious that this is not the focus of the book. But Sheryl has created an eco-system around the book, making it a launch pad for forums all over the world for women to come together and talk about gender biases. While the magnitude might not be the same, the dilemmas that women face are universal: family versus work, marriage versus career, children versus career, etc."
So, to read or not to read?
This book is a definite read for two reasons: for unabashedly discussing the discrimination that women, even women as successful as her, regularly face at their workplaces and for the refreshingly real-world solutions to dealing with these biases. While Lean In has a decidedly feminist agenda, it encourages women to use means that are anything but to reach the corner office. "A woman needs to combine niceness with insistence," she says. "I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to its biased rules and expectations. I know it is not a perfect answer but a means to a desirable end." While I see the inadequacies in an answer like this, when I ask myself whether I'll be better equipped to effect change from the sidelines or the corner office, I'm inclined to zip it and Lean In.