Bits of Books - Books by Title

Lean In:

Women, Work and the Will to Lead

by Sheryl Sandberg

(London Times)

In 1859, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, wrote: "The day is come, thank God, when a woman as well as a man can have some other career besides that of the heart." But she thought it would be a long time before there was a woman president, not because women were not able enough to lead the country, but because they would have to "be a brazen tramp of a woman to stand all the dirt the press would throw at her".

I don't know if Sheryl ­Sandberg is a brazen tramp of a woman (she doesn't look like one in her author photograph), but the chief operating officer of Facebook will need a hide of Teflon to ignore the storm of criticism that this book about women in the workforce has provoked. Much of the criticism has been from women: Maureen Dowd, the redoubtable New York Times columnist, has damned Sandberg alliteratively as a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots", and other feminists have castigated her for ignoring the plight of poor and underprivileged women who are more concerned with putting food on the table than getting a seat at it. There is a feeling that a woman with two Harvard degrees and many ­millions in stock options from Google and Facebook has no right to tell the rest of her sex how to get to the top of what she calls the "corporate jungle gym" (American for climbing frame).

A great deal of this debate was aired before the book's publication, and I suspect that many of the critics will not have read what proves to be a pretty incontestable argument about the gap between notional and real gender equality. Sandberg's belief is that "a truly equal world is one where women ran half of our countries and companies and men ran half of our homes". But as she shows through a mixture of personal anecdote and quotes from academic surveys, we are nowhere close to that ideal, despite the fact that "the laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would be improved". And yet only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs in America are women.

Manned mission: to create a woman-friendly workplace, says Sandberg, you need more women in power (Getty) What puzzles Sandberg is why women aren't getting to the top quicker. Is it, she wonders, not just a question of discrimination but also a failure of nerve? She quotes Judith Rodin, the first woman president of an Ivy League university, who once remarked to a group of women Sandberg's age: "My generation [she started her working life in the 1960s] fought so hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make." Sandberg suggests the unpalatable truth that the reason that there aren't enough women at the top has something to do with the fact that so many highly qualified women choose either to go part time or to leave work altogether when they start a family. The problem is, of course, that the more women who opt for the mummy track, the more big corporations will invest in men, even mediocre men, because statistically they are more likely to stay.

This is a chicken and egg situation, because, as Sandberg says (and I am inclined to agree), until the number of women at the top reaches critical mass, we will never achieve the kind of work-life balance that makes it equally possible for men and women to get to the top. When as a senior executive at Google the heavily pregnant Sandberg found that she had to walk half a mile from her car to a meeting, she went straight to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, and demanded designated parking for pregnant women. She got it. To create a woman-friendly workplace, she argues, you need more women in power. Sandberg herself is a stickler for leaving the office at 5.30pm so that she can put her children to bed. She can do this because she is the boss. "There is flexibility if you stay the course."

So she urges her readers to, as she puts it, "lean in". That means not giving up on your ambitions because you want to have children - what she calls leaving before you leave. She also urges working mothers, or as she calls them "career-loving parents", to get over their fears of being inadequate mothers: "Guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers." After all, as she points out, dads feel proud for getting to sports day rather than beating themselves up for missing the swimming gala. "Show me a woman without guilt, and I'll show you a man."

Sandberg wants women to get over their fear of being seen as "ambitious", which is only a pejorative word when applied to a woman. "It is easy to dislike senior women because there are so few of them." It is undoubtedly true that successful women have to work twice as hard and put up with much more criticism than successful men. The only way to change that is for more women to keep going so that successful women become the norm, not the exception.

I work in a business - television production - which is something of a standard bearer for equality. There are senior women at every level. This has definitely had the trickle-down effect of making work more equal for men and women, but there still hasn't been a woman Director General at the BBC, or a woman chief executive at Channel 4, or ITV.

And there's still a danger that many hard-won achievements could be lost. Five years ago there were more senior women at the BBC, and more female cabinet ministers in the UK. This year, for the first time, the number of women on FTSE 100 boards has gone down. I don't care if Sandberg wears Prada ankle boots or Birkenstocks, she has a valid point to make. There is nothing to be complacent about.

More books on Women

More books on Work

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress