Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Lean In’ – in seven paragraphs


1. It wasn’t easy single-handedly transforming Google from an obscure start-up in 2001 to a multi-billion dollar behemoth in 2004, which is when I got pregnant with my first child. “Don’t worry,” said Sergey and Larry when we touched base offline, “we’ll survive without you during your maternity leave.” I wasn’t so sure. I never thought I’d write a book. But then I spoke to hundreds of women less successful than me, who urged me to tell the stories of their little lives in a global bestseller. This book will be relevant for women of all backgrounds, incomes and lifestyles: from the elite ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ types, like me, all the way down to those who can only afford private childcare for three days a week at most. Let’s be clear: Not all women want careers, not all women want children, and not all women want both. That’s perfectly fine! Proper women like me DO juggle both, obviously, but not everyone is prepared to make the sacrifices I’ve made. You can’t have your cake and eat it, so sometimes you have to step up to the plate and face the music. So read on, lean in, and try not to sick up.

2. In my experience, the best way to begin leaning in is by going to Harvard. But perhaps you lack my focus and commitment to bettering myself and ended up at a second rate college and in a mid-level job. If so, well done you for trying! You go girl! You can lean in too. If only you could stop slacking and wasting your potential by needing more than two hours’ sleep a night, you might rise as high as me. Now, why is it that a shockingly low number of women hold directorships of S&P 500 companies? You might think it’s because such companies are ridden with institutional sexism, and tend to be run by cosy old-boys’ clubs of white males. You might think that they should therefore be forced to change their atavistic cultures and be held accountable for their inexcusable failure to promote a more representative proportion of women to leadership positions. But you’d be wrong! It’s because women aren’t trying hard enough! So put down your late night cup of tea and go and network at your local Rotary club until 3am, otherwise you’ve only got yourself to blame.

3. When we look at the reasons as to why all women lack the same ambition as their male counterparts, some frankly jaw-dropping generalisations become obvious. Women are far more likely to suffer from self-doubt than men. I know this because at Harvard, I occasionally felt as though my peers were cleverer than me. So many women experience this feeling at top universities, whereas men just sail through without any anxiety at all. I’m basing this mostly on a crude comparison with my brother, who is very confident. I have inevitably concluded that all men have the same mentality as him, and all women have the same mentality as me. Some women have broken the mould. One of my friends is a top neurosurgeon who spends her evenings doing non-profit work or helping her daughters make organic mung bean soufflés for their school bake sale (after she’s made a four course dinner whilst talking to her broker about her stock profile, the proceeds of which she plans to leave to the local orphanage). If only more women leaned in and stopped moping around, they might lead equally fulfilling lives. Once they do lean in, their career success immediately doubles. Then it quadruples. Then it grows exponentially forever. Let me show you how.

4. At Harvard, the smart girls I knew tended not to be very popular. This quite clearly proves that people resent successful women. Look at Hillary Clinton and Christine Lagarde, both of whom are universally despised. As we know, all men in business are power hungry savages who prioritise achievement over popularity. Have you ever met a successful businessman who wasn’t a sharp-elbowed bastard? Me neither. No-one expects men to have any redeeming personal characteristics in the workplace, whereas women are expected to be non-threatening and nice first and foremost. Displays of female assertiveness are strongly discouraged in most corporations I’ve never set foot in, and are frequently met with instant dismissal. My solution is revolutionary: women should combine assertiveness with a fixed smile which must be visible at all times. You might end up looking vaguely unhinged, particularly during disagreements, and your jaw muscles might ache beyond all measure, but it’s vitally important. Otherwise, men will almost certainly call you a witch and burn you at the stake if you voice an opinion about anything. This is just one of the facts of gender relations I learned whilst growing up in 1950s Iran.

5. Commentators have suggested the importance of finding an appropriate mentor at an early stage of your career. My mentor was my thesis supervisor at Harvard, Larry Summers, who got me a job at the World Bank and then appointed me as his Chief of Staff when he became US Secretary of the Treasury. This certainly helped me to lean in. But a trend I’ve noticed is that many women seek mentorships from other successful women in the hope that this in itself will propel them up the career ladder. I disagree, so STOP ASKING ME TO BE YOUR MENTOR, okay? I don’t have enough bandwidth. Mentoring is all well and good, but it is more important to take a helicopter view of your weaknesses in order to progress. We all have weaknesses. I’m no different. For example, in the early part of my career I naively indulged in some non-productive pastimes, such as taking vacations and having life-enriching hobbies outside of work and family. I quickly realised that these were a criminally inefficient use of my time, gave myself fifty lashes and threw myself into more work projects and networking events. Now, my main weaknesses are probably the fact that I’m too much of a perfectionist, and my love of heroin.

6. One of the first issues all new parents face is the coin toss to decide who has to give up part of their amazing job to care for the new asset on the balance sheet. Will it be the mother or the father? If you’re a single mum, or in a same-sex relationship – haha, yeah good luck with that. The birth of my first son was very difficult. Later, in my hospital bed, I prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show him when we got home, outlining some KPIs for his performance in being born, and how we could work together on structures for improving certain competencies going forward. The lesson here is simple – never miss an opportunity to practice leaning in. Over time, my husband Dave and I have split our parental duties 50/50, but not everyone is lucky enough to fall into a marriage as perfect as mine. On a first date with a new guy or girl, I strongly suggest working together on a comprehensive spreadsheet dividing your responsibilities as stakeholders in your future married and parental lives. Then you can drill down in a deep dive to prepare a strategic staircase for your objectives. Planning is everything.

7. It is perfectly natural that you might want to work fewer hours once you inevitably become a mother. All that is required is some creative outside-the-box thinking. For example: in most corporations mothers can work less simply by suggesting to the CEO, firmly but with the essential fixed smile, that more work can be allocated to single people, whose lives are basically pointless and so won’t mind taking up the slack because work is all they have. Some hard choices are also necessary. Sometimes you will have to turn down pro-bono speaking engagements on the East coast to have dinner with your husband. If your child is sick, you may have to briefly step out of a multi-billion dollar deal negotiation to arrange for the nanny to pull an extra shift. Some degree of leaning out is therefore tolerable. But the message I’m running up the flagpole is clear: it’s not institutions that need reform, it’s the attitude of women who work within them. Rather than look under the bonnet and challenge employers’ biases and outmoded working practices, we need to show more commitment! This is what we need to action going forward! So keeping leaning in and smiling assertively, and soon you’ll own a billion dollars in Facebook stock like me.

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