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A Male Leader Finally Reads Lean In

by Craig Irons

When the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was published in 2013 it became an instant sensation. It topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for 12 weeks, made Sandberg a celebrity, and added fresh fuel to a decades-long public discourse about the challenges women face in their careers.

I didn’t read Lean In when it was published, and I didn’t read it for five years afterward for one very simple reason: I’m a man and I didn’t believe the book was written for me.

But in this, the year of #MeToo and rising frustration with the behavior of far too many men in the workplace, and the continued lack of progress toward removing the glass ceiling, the time seemed right to finally sit down with this book about which I’ve always been curious.

Also, there’s this: When I consider the relative quality of the bosses I’ve had during my more than three decades in the workforce, most of the female bosses I’ve had have been terrific. Most of my male bosses? Not so much.

So, I decided to read Lean In because I wanted to see how I could better understand female leaders and, along the way, maybe I could learn a thing or two. What was revealed in this book about how women approach their jobs, how they view the workplace, and what motivations drive them that so often make them excellent leaders?

In the end, these weren’t the insights I got, but I did learn two much more important things: 1) all the women I’ve worked for and with all these years have it much harder than I realized (that includes my wife, who has successfully held down a series of demanding jobs as a working mother), and 2) I should have read Lean In long before now.

The deck is stacked against women

Sandberg’s thesis in Lean In is that the deck is stacked against working women. She paints a convincing and troubling portrait.

The way girls are raised perpetuates gender stereotypes, and shapes and reinforces roles and behaviors that make it harder for them to pursue success (“Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself—traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting.”). Organizations don’t do enough to create and maintain environments in which women are truly equal to men, don’t provide equal advancement opportunities, and don’t accommodate the needs of working mothers.

Unconscious bias remains a powerful force that holds women back. Gender differences are difficult for men and women to discuss openly. Women fail to support other women and don’t mentor enough, she says.

According to Sandberg, women, through their own insecurities, attitudes, and behaviors—stemming from how they were raised, how society continues to view them, how the media continues to portray them, and what they face every day in the workplace—hold themselves back, too. She cites research showing that while many men won’t think twice about applying for jobs they don’t feel totally qualified for, women tend to be more hesitant to do so.

Women settle for less money instead of asking for what they’re truly worth (she cites a study of students graduating with a master’s degree from a top university, which found that while 57 percent of men attempted to negotiate for a higher starting salary, just 7 percent of women did).

As illustrated in one memorable story in the book, they may choose to sit along the perimeter of a conference room instead of taking seats at the table. They don’t demand that their husbands or significant others become “real partners” who fairly split the duties associated with raising children and keeping a home running.

Of course, she correctly insists men are at fault, too. They perpetuate gender stereotypes and roles (often because of the way they were raised), don’t act as allies to women in the workplace, and don’t pick up the slack in child-rearing and household chores.

Sandberg comes across as an authority because she’s accomplished quite a lot. She has two degrees from Harvard. While in her twenties she served as chief of staff to Larry Summers, U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton. She’s the most senior woman at one of the world’s largest tech companies. Fortune magazine has named her one of the Most Powerful Women in the World.

You and I are on LinkedIn, but Sandberg was once approached about becoming the CEO of LinkedIn. Her net worth is reported to be about $1.5 billion—yes, that’s billion with a “b.” And from the stories she tells in Lean In, she’s a master networker and is on a first-name basis with many powerful people in business, government, academia, and the media.

While some critics made the point, fairly or not, that Sandberg was writing from a position of privilege (I would agree the book offers little in the way of practical advice to, say, single mothers working minimum-wage jobs), she represents a voice that needed to be heard and she used that voice to write a book that elicited strong opinions.

I learned this firsthand through my own research. Rather than cite reviews of Lean In from the time it came out or the appraisals of the book’s legacy that appeared earlier this year on the five-year anniversary of its publication, I put out a call on my social media networks asking my female friends and professional connections to chime in with their thoughts.

A Gen X friend whose opinion I value highly sent me a thoughtful email confirming that Lean In struck a chord with her:

“To say it affected me is to put it mildly. I called my sister at the end of each chapter screaming: ‘YOU'VE GOT TO READ THIS!!’ … I’d hoped (okay, assumed) that Lean In would not be relevant to the millennial generation, that ‘we’ the children of the women's lib/break-through-the-glass-ceiling generation, would mark the end of the need for this book.”

A respected colleague, meanwhile, sent me an excerpt from her doctoral dissertation, in which she cited sources who took Sandberg to task for overemphasizing the “individual responsibility one has in career success” and for suggesting that “if women were more confident and assertive that they could effectively obtain leadership roles.”  

Only men can be coaches and women can be nurses???

Lean In is filled with statistics that make it credible and personal anecdotes that make it relatable. As I work for DDI and have helped market our Women In Leadership offerings, nearly all the statistics listed in Lean In were familiar to me. Unfortunately, I came to realize that, as I’ve spent most of my career in workplaces where women were in the majority, many of the stories also rang all too true.

During the week I read Lean In, I was in a training session with nine colleagues. These colleagues included both men and women. Throughout the training, the facilitator, who was male, welcomed questions and I, like most of the participants, wasn’t shy about raising my hand. If the facilitator didn’t see my raised hand, I went ahead and blurted out my question, as did most of the other men in the room.

At one point, however, I was sitting next to a female colleague, a very capable and experienced professional, who raised her hand to ask a question. The facilitator didn’t acknowledge her and, after several seconds, she put her hand down and gave up on asking the question.


Because I was reading Lean In I found this more unsettling than I might have otherwise (“If we want a world with greater equality, we need to acknowledge that women are less likely to keep their hands up.”) More unsettling still was the realization that this same thing must have happened countless times before in classes, meetings, or training sessions I’ve been in over the years, and I’m sure there were many, many times I’d never noticed it. (What’s more, I think it’s highly possible the facilitator wasn’t consciously ignoring her raised hand.)

Another story from the same week: My college-age son is working as a counselor at a camp for underprivileged children this summer. My wife and I attended a commissioning ceremony there at the end of the staff training week. During the ceremony, the camp director stood on stage and addressed the counselors (for some reason all the male counselors were seated on one side of the room, the female counselors on the other) about the various roles they would play for the campers over the summer. 

Looking at the male counselors, the director said that they would be “mentors” and “coaches.” Then, turning to the female counselors, he declared that they would serve as “nurses” and would “be nurturing.”

My wife, sitting next to me, got the message loud and clear and uttered an obscenity under her breath, which didn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me was just how much I too was offended for those young women sitting there listening to what was being said to and about them.

Of course, women can be and often are excellent mentors and coaches (a book by legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit held the top spot on The New York Times non-fiction best-seller list the week before Lean In supplanted it). Men, for their part, can choose nursing as a career, and they can also be nurturing.

To suggest, even subtly, as the camp director did, that any of these roles are the sole domain of one gender just wasn’t right—and it wasn’t fair to further subject those young women to biases and stereotypes that keep their confidence and potential in check.

What will I do differently?

So, now that I’ve read Lean In, what is it that I will do differently? There are some obvious things I should do for sure (e.g., be a better ally to the women I work with, be willing to serve as a mentor if approached, recognize and address my own unconscious bias as it relates to making snap judgments about women or men, be more open-minded about my sons’ life choices and reinforce to them that they could choose to stay at home and raise their children if that is an option, encourage them to be better allies to the women in their lives, and make it clear that they need to do their part when they have their own homes and families).

And when I see something, I should say something, which, admittedly, is often easier to commit to than actually do.

When I noticed in that training session that my colleague had put her hand down when she wasn’t acknowledged, I waited until the facilitator appeared ready to move on to the next section and spoke up: “Hey, I think Jane [not her real name] has a question.” She asked her question, it was an insightful one, and the facilitator was happy to answer it, even though he had been oblivious to the fact that she even had a question in the first place.

But as for that camp director, I must confess I didn’t say anything to him. Though if I cross paths with him again this summer, and the situation seems right, I might very well.

Better yet, maybe I should send both men a copy of Lean In. They should read it. All men should.

Work shouldn’t be less-rewarding for women, just because they’re women

While Sandberg writes about and (largely) to women, along the way she touches upon societal expectations for men to identify themselves through their work.

“Fathers who want to drop out of the workforce entirely and devote themselves to child care can face extremely negative social pressures,” she writes. I believe this to be true. I also wonder how many men would really want to take the “drop out” option if it were offered to them.

Personally, given the choice between the admittedly important work of staying home and raising children full time and working full time, it was an easy decision (and not just because of financial necessity) to choose my demanding full-time job. And from my experience, for better or worse (probably worse), I think the overwhelming majority of men feel the same way.

Several years ago, when my sons were in elementary school, I fell into a conversation at a birthday party with another dad who was having a bad time at work. “I’d just like to be able to quit, and stay home and spend time with the family,” he said, dejectedly. In the end, of course, he didn’t quit to spend more time with his family. What he did do, though, was quit the job that was giving him such grief and took another job.

When my sons were in school, among the parents I was acquainted with I knew of exactly two stay-at-home dads. And at least one of them confided that he struggled with feeling deeply guilty about not working. 

When I was seven years old, my dad did quit to stay home with our family. But it wasn’t by choice. He had been an over-the-road truck driver, and two serious heart attacks had forced him to take disability retirement at the far-too-young age of 45. He hated being out of the workforce, hated being away from the camaraderie and community of the workplace, and he never was able to dodge the feeling that he wasn’t doing his part to financially provide for his family.

My father was a good dad, but he spent most of his time at home constructing a makeshift workday out of his household chores, meaning that there were no outings to the park, no visits to the library, no appearances by him at school assemblies, or other earmarks of “quality time” that define the modern conception of involved parenting (though the time we spent watching TV together in the evenings are among my fondest childhood memories).

I bring up my dad because his experience shaped my own preferences about the choice to be made when it comes to work and family. And while I have preferred to be a working dad as opposed to a stay-at-home one I don’t believe women should feel pressure to stay home if they don’t want to, either.

Sheryl Sandberg

To the contrary, the things I enjoy about my job and that my dad missed about his—the interaction with co-workers, the opportunities to collaborate with and learn from others, the daily need to rise up to meet work challenges, the sense of belonging to and contributing to the success of something bigger than yourself—are things everyone should get to experience if they choose to do so.

The experience shouldn’t be harder or less-rewarding for women, just because they’re women.

And if women want to reach higher, advance up the ladder, and rise as high as their ability and opportunities can take them, they should be able to do just that. It’s the fair thing and it’s also just good business; DDI research confirms that having more women in leadership roles correlates to better organizational performance.

But if my reading of Lean In confirmed anything, it’s that it won’t be easy. And that’s a reality none of us—women or men—should accept!

Learn how DDI can help you Unleash Hidden Potential to leverage the power of diversity and inclusion.

Craig Irons is Marketing Content Manager for DDI.

Posted: 29 Jun, 2018,
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