Summary Notes on ‘Lean In’

My last post was a call to graduates based on my reading of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. There is a variety of themes I didn’t address, however, and which I wanted to share. Find below notes from my reading. These are mostly just entire passages and sentences of the book structured in a coherent way.

Enjoy !



A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves:

  • Women hold themselves back by lacking self-confidence, by not raising their hands, by pulling back when they should be leaning in.
  • Women internalise the negative messages, lower their expectations of what they can achieve.
  • Women continue to do the majority of the housework and childcare, and compromise career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.
  • Fewer women aspire to senior positions compared to their male colleagues.

Getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power.



Fear and the Stereotype Threat

From the moment we are born, boys and girls are treated differently: Mothers overestimate the crawling ability of their sons and underestimate the crawling ability of their daughters.

The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

  • Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don’t expect to achieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don’t
  • Men generally earn more than women, so people expect women to earn less. And they do.

Stereotype threat: social scientists have observed that when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype, they are more likely to perform according to that stereotype.

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



Self-doubt and the Impostor Syndrome

Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women, gave a talk called “Feeling like a fraud” where she explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel underserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made.

This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name – the impostor syndrome.

  • Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.

The internalization of failure and the insecurity the impostor syndrome breeds hurt future performance, so this pattern has serous long-term consequences.

“Fake it till you feel it” strategy: one study found that when people assumed a high-power pose (taking up space by spreading their limbs) for just tow minutes, their dominance hormone levels (testosterone) went up and their stress hormone levels (cortisol) went down. As a result, they felt more powerful and in charge and showed a greater tolerance for risk. A simple change in posture led to a significant change in attitude.



Raising Hands Incident

Giving a talk on gender issues to Facebook employees. Took questions for as long as time permitted. Said would only take two more questions. After two questions, most women put their hands down but several men kept their hands up. Since hands were still waving in the air, Sheryl took more questions, only from the men. à Even though she was giving a speech on gender issues, she had been blind to herself.

  • If we want a world with greater equality we need to acknowledge that women are less likely to keep their hands up. We need institutions and individuals to notice and correct for this behaviour by encouraging, promoting, and championing more women.


Opportunities are rarely offered, they’re seized.

  • Given how fast the world moves today, grabbing opportunities is more important than ever.
  • There is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity for you, rather than the other way round.



Likeability and Success

The Heidi / Howard Case

Columbia Business School professor Francis Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace.

  • They gave a Harvard Business School case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen.
  • The case described how she became a successful venture capitalist.
  • Then they assigned half of the students to read Heidi’s story and the other half the same story with the difference of changing Heidi’s name to Howard.

Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

  • When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.

The Gender Discount Problem

Author Ken Auletta summarized this phenomenon in The New Yorker when he observed that for women, “self-doubt becomes a form of self-defence”.

  • In order to protect themselves from being disliked, women question their abilities and downplay achievements, especially in the presence of others. They put themselves down before others can.

Owning one’s success is key to achieving more success. Professional advancement depends upon people believing that an employee is contributing to good results.

Professor Flynn calls this the gender discount problem and it means that women are paying a professional penalty for their presumed desire to be communal.

  • When a man helps a co-worker, it’s considered an imposition and he is compensated with more favourable performance evaluations and rewards like salary increases and bonuses.
  • When a woman declines to help a colleague, she often receives less favourable reviews and fewer rewards. But a man who declines to help? He pays no penalty.
  • Because of these unfair expectations, women find themselves in “damned if they do” and “doomed if they don’t” situations.




Professor Hannah Riley Bowles, who studies gender and negotiations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, believes that women can increase their chances of achieving a desired outcome by doing two things:

  • Women must come across as being nice, concerned about others, and “appropriately” female.
    • When women take more instrumental approach (“this is what I want and deserve”), people react far more negatively.
    • When negotiating, women should “Think personally, act communally”. à Women should substitute “we” for “I”.
  • Women should provide a legitimate explanation for the negotiation.
    • Men don’t have to legitimize their negotiations; they are expected to look out for themselves.
    • Women, however, have to justify their requests.
    • One way of doing this is to suggest that someone more senior encouraged the negotiation or cite industry standards.
  • I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations. I know it is not a perfect answer but a means to a desirable end. It is also true, as any good negotiator knows, that having a better understanding of the other side leads to a superior outcome.



Career Advices

Pattie Sellers: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder”.

  • Ladders are limiting – people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gyms offer more creative, exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.

I recommend adopting two concurrent goals: a long-term dream and an eighteen-month plan.

Eric Schmidt from Google: the only criterion when picking a job is fast growth.

  • When companies grow quickly, there are more things to do than there are people to do them.
  • When companies grow more slowly or stop growing, there is less to do and too many people to not be doing them.
  • If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.

The cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth

An internal report at Hewlett Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 per cent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 per cent of the requirements.

  • This difference has a huge ripple effect.
  • Women need to shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “ I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it”.

Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, founders of Negotiating Women, Inc., describe the Tiara Syndrome where women expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.

  • In a perfect meritocracy, tiaras would be doled out to the deserving.
  • Hard work and results should be recognized by others, but when they aren’t, advocating for oneself becomes necessary àthis must be done with great care but it must be done.

Author Alice Walker: “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”.




It may turn into a friendship, but the foundation of mentoring is a professional relationship.

Because it is harder for young women to find mentors and sponsors, they are taking a more active role in seeking them out.

  • However, no matter how crucial these connections are, they probably won’t develop from asking a virtual stranger “will you be my mentor?”
  • The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connections felt by both sides.

Intuitively people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help.

  • Mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback.
  • Given this, I believe we have sent the wrong message to young women. We need to stop telling them “get a mentor and you will excel”. Instead, we need to tell them, “excel and you will get a mentor”.

Mentorship is often a more reciprocal relationship than it may appear, especially in situations where people are already working at the same company.

  • A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in a day. For this same reason, mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions.
  • Most people in the position to mentor are quite adept at problem solving. Give them a problem to solve.

Of course, there are some tricky issues to be solved here, including the perceived sexual context of male-female relationships.

  • A senior man and junior man at a bar is seen as mentoring.
  • A senior man and a junior woman at a bar can also be mentoring… but it looks like dating.



Honesty and Feedback

Being honest in the workplace is especially difficult. All organizations have some form of hierarchy, which means that someone’s performance is assessed by someone else’s perception. This makes people even less likely to tell the truth.

Statements of opinion are always more constructive in the first person.

  • “You never take my suggestions seriously”
  • “I feel frustrated that you have not responded to my last four emails”

One sparks a disagreement, the other sparks a discussion.

We all want to be heard, and when we focus on showing others that we are listening, we actually become better listeners.

Feedback, like truth, is not absolute. Feedback is an opinion, grounded in observations and experiences, which allows us to know what impression we make on others. The information is revealing and potentially uncomfortable, which is why all of us would rather offer feedback to those who welcome it.

When people are open and honest, thanking them publicly encourages them to continue, while sending a powerful signal to others.



The Myth of Doing It All

Sharon Proctzer, professor of economics at Cornell, explains, “The antiquated rhetoric of “having it all” disregards the basis of every economic relationship: the idea of trade-offs.

  • All of us are dealing with the constrained optimization that is life, attempting to maximise our utility based on parameters like career, kids, relationships, etc., doing our best to allocate the resource of time à Due to the scarcity of this resource, therefore, none of us can “have it all”, and those who claim to are most likely lying.

Women should learn from Icarus to aim for the sky, but keep in mind that we all have real limits.

Nora Ephron in her 1996 Wellesley commencement speech when she addressed the issue of women having both a career and family. Ephron insisted, “it will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”

There’s too much pressure on you and your peers. It’s not compatible with a normal life”. But this is the new normal for many of us.

  • The new normal means that there are just not enough hours in the day. For years, I attempted to solve this problem by skimping on sleep, a common but often counterproductive approach.
  • If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can… and accepting them.



Motherhood, Household and Empowerment

The birth of a child instantly changes how we define ourselves and our priorities shift in fundamental ways.

  • Parenting may be the most rewarding experience, but it is also the hardest and most humbling.
  • If there were a right way to raise kids, everyone would do it. Clearly, that is not the case.

A whopping 52 per cent of mothers with husbands in the bottom quarter and 40 per cent of mothers with husbands in the top 5 per cent were out of the labour force. Obviously their reasons for staying home are vastly different.

  • Mothers married to the lowest-earning men struggle to find jobs that pay enough to cover child care costs, which are increasingly unaffordable. Over the past decade, childcare costs have risen twice as fast as the median income of families with children.

Anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open. Don’t enter the workforce already looking for the exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.


As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home.

  • I have seen so many women inadvertently discourage their husbands from doing their share by being too controlling or critical.
  • Social scientists call this “maternal gatekeeping” à which is a fancy term for “oh my god, that’s not the way you do it! Just move aside and let me”.

Over time, if he does things his way, he’ll find the correct end. But if he’s force to do things her way, pretty soon she’ll be doing them herself.

Anyone who wants her mate to be a true partner must treat him as an equal – and equally capable – partner.

I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully – and I mean fully – supportive of her career.

Women face enough barriers to professional success. If they also have to worry that they will upset their husbands by succeeding, how can we hope to live in an equal world?

Equality between partners leads to happier relationships.

  • When husbands do more house works, wives are less depressed, marital conflicts decrease, and satisfaction rises.
  • When women work outside the home and share breadwinning, duties, couples are more likely to stay together. In fact, the risk of divorce reduces by about half when a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework.

We need more men to sit at the table… at the kitchen table.



Let’s Start Talking About It

As Gloria Steinem observed, “Whoever has power takes over the noun – and the norm – while the less powerful get an adjective”.

In meetings, both men and women are more likely to interrupt a woman and give credit to a man for an idea first proposed by a woman à When Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, witnesses either of these behaviours, he stops the meeting to point it out.

Every job will demand some sacrifice à the key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice.

  • This is especially hard since our work culture values complete dedication. We worry that even mentioning other priorities makes us less valuable employees.

We cannot change what we are unaware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.

Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.



Working Together Toward Equality

True equality is long overdue and will be achieved only when more women rise to the top of every government and every industry. Then we have to do the hard work of getting there.

All of us – men and women alike – have to understand and acknowledge how stereotypes and biases cloud our beliefs and perpetuate the status quo. Instead of ignoring our differences, we need to accept and transcend them.

Equal opportunities is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.

  • None of this is attainable unless we pursue these goals together.

The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves. Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.

  • In 2004, four female executives at Merrill Lynch started having lunch together once a month. They shared their accomplishments and frustrations. They brainstormed about business. After the lunches, they would all go back to their offices and tout one another’s achievements. They couldn’t brag about themselves, but they could easily do it for their colleagues. à their careers flourished and each rose up the ranks to reach managing director and executive officer levels. The queen bee was banished, and the hive became stronger.


Title: Lean in for graduates
Subtitle: Because the world needs you to change it
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Published: 2014

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