The Myths of Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’

SandbergI didn’t really want to write about ‘Lean In’. What was left to say?

The COO of Facebook’s new book is out this week accompanied by countless articles and commentary in every newspaper, magazine and news program. Some criticize Sandberg for being the pompom leader for feminism, an elite leader with no relevance to normal working women and that her book says far too little about the structural changes needed in society.

What could I add to the debate that hasn’t already been said? Yet, I kept thinking about this topic and my personal experiences. Plus, the vitriol against her started to rub me the wrong way.

I have been the only woman in the room at the executive meeting more times than I can count; seen women who performed better than their male counterparts, yet not get the promotion; and a woman not get the job offer because the other male candidate “will have fewer schedule limitations” – in a few years.

I have also witnessed amazing women leaders take on the toughest business challenges with great success in spite of those obstacles. And, also, women who gradually removed themselves from the chance.

The topic of women leaning in to career and leading is a complicated web of issues that is hard to untangle. Just ask Marissa Mayer at Yahoo.

We each bring our own bias and life experiences to the discussion and there is systemic bias.  It’s like unraveling any complicated issue. It depends on what matters most to you, your biases, your expectations and personal experiences. Her book is the Rorschach test for how we see women and success. And, I’m sure of this – the answer isn’t a simple one that fits all women.

I think there are a few myths worth calling out:

1. Sandberg’s success means she can’t offer advice to the rest of us.

When did success become a disqualifier to give sound advice? Yes, she is a multi-millionaire, has two degrees from Harvard and is the COO of Facebook.  And, she has achieved extraordinary success. She certainly has gained incredible wisdom on her path. We can listen to that experience and learn even if her life and career are quite different than ours.

2. Just because there is workplace inequality, we can’t look in the mirror.

Of course, there is workplace inequality. As Sandberg points out, women hold around 14% of Fortune 500 executive officer positions and about 17% of board seats and that has stayed fairly constant over the last decade.  Yet, we have to look at what is in our control and our own career choices. What can we do that affects our career and advancement? We should work on the bigger cultural bias, but individually we are accountable for ourselves and for helping each other.

3. You have to choose between being a wife and mother and your career.

Sandberg reports that early on girls get the message that they will likely have to make the choice between succeeding at work and being the wife and/or mother they want to be. This belief causes women to start making small choices very early based on this assumption.  I agree and have seen the little decisions along the way that cause many women to gradually opt out of their careers. There may be new opportunities if we asssumed we can do both – not that the two paths will part ways at some point. And, most importantly, not judging other women for the choices they make.

4. Every woman’s career goals are the same.

On the surface, this seems so obvious. No one would assume that all men have the same goals in how they define success or a satisfying career. But, so much of the conversation about women’s careers and advancement implies that we all have one common goal.

As my colleague Emily Bennington points out in her book, ‘Who Says It’s a Man’s World?’, it comes down to your values and your own priorities. I think it’s knowing what you want and challenging your own personal assumptions about how to get it. There may be options that you ruled out too early.

 5. Women can career plan away workplace inequality.

As Maria Shriver said in her recent commentary, over 70 million women live in poverty. Women earn 78 cents on the dollar to their male counterparts. Many women are just trying to get by – never mind having it all. This book has great advice for women, but it won’t fix the systemic challenges that women face today. Women and men have a role to play in structural change in addition to furthering our own careers.  Shriver makes the case that we need to push back, as well as lean in.

No one will agree or accept all of Sandberg’s advice or opinions. But, her book is causing  women to talk more and challenge our own self-imposed limitations…and bring more men into a conversation that needed to be updated.

It will take both changes in society and changes in how women think to ultimately reach the future that Sandberg envisions. “In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults at She can be followed @pattibjohnson and her company @people_results.