June 2013Volume 18Number 5PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Lean In encourages women to step up to the plate

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, sends a powerful message to young women: we need you to aim high in your careers, not just for yourselves, but for the good of all women. The book’s title certainly succeeds in communicating this message, asking women to “lean in” to their careers, and to be “ambitious in any pursuit.” Ms. Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook since 2008, combines both empirical research and anecdotes from her own life to illustrate her argument for leaning in.

The book begins by laying the foundation for Ms. Sandberg’s argument: we need more women in higher-level career positions before women and men will truly be equals in the workforce. Ms. Sandberg writes that she “believe[s] that increasing the number of women in positions of power is a necessary element of true equality” between women and men. As an example, Ms. Sandberg recounts a story from her days when she worked at Google. She was pregnant, had spent “a rough morning . . . staring at the bottom of the toilet,” and was rushing to make an important client meeting. The only parking spot she could find was far away, and she had to “lumber[ ] a bit more quickly than [her] absurdly slow pregnancy crawl” to make it to the meeting, making her nausea worse.

The next day, she “waddled in” to see a Google founder and announced that Google needed expectant mother parking, after which the founder immediately agreed, noting that he had never thought about it before. Having just one woman in a position to say something about the parking situation made all the difference. Ms. Sandberg argues that “[c]onditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”

The remainder of Lean In builds on the foundation: for women to achieve these higher-level positions needed to help all women’s chances for success and equality, we need women to step up to the plate and actually aim to reach those positions. Ms. Sandberg explains that women hold themselves back “in ways both big and small, by lacking self confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” She argues that getting rid of our own internal barriers is key to gaining power. This argument is unique in that it gives women a guidebook for success based on things they can actually control, rather than focusing on societal or institutional barriers that most women can do little to redress.

Although Lean In was not specifically written for women in the legal community, the book is an excellent read for women at all stages in their legal careers, including those who are still in law school and have not even begun working yet. Ms. Sandberg discusses with wit and passion issues that women in legal careers no doubt face, such as working on our own self-confidence, finding and being a mentor, and asking our partners to help us out at home.

The seventh chapter of Lean In, entitled “Don’t Leave Before you Leave,” seems especially targeted to young women who are just starting out in their careers, like me. In this chapter, Ms. Sandberg argues that women may be nervous to take on certain projects, or “agree to take them on with the kind of hesitant yes that gets the project assigned to someone else” because they are afraid that establishing the reputation of someone who takes on such work projects may someday upset the work-life balance they dream of. She states that women tend to carve out a place for family in their lives before their family is even close to materializing, while men do not. For example, Ms. Sandberg recounts a time when a young woman at Facebook asked to privately speak to her about some “urgent” questions regarding work-life balance, when the woman did not even have a boyfriend yet.

This difference between men and women is detrimental to women’s success in the workplace, while, of course, men tend to rise to the top due to their ambition. Ms. Sandberg argues that “the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.” Ms. Sandberg states that the time before a child arrives can actually be a wonderful opportunity to lean in; that way, women can actually look forward to returning to a rewarding job, rather than making the non-decision of whether to return to an “okay” job, after having a child.

Ms. Sandberg’s point on this issue is well-taken. I admit that I am one of those people who plans everything far in advance, and that includes planning to have children one day. Being interested in women’s issues, I have attended my fair share of conferences and seminars with the banner topic of obtaining an ideal work-life balance. Being aware of the issues I face in my career put me on red alert for anything that might upset my goals relating to family and work. Like the young woman at Facebook asking “urgent” questions long before the time came, I have worried about work swallowing up life in the balance way too far in advance. After reading Lean In, I realized that Ms. Sandberg makes an excellent point, and that for now, I need not worry that leaning in at work could negatively affect time spent with my nonexistent someday-child. That child is nowhere close to being here yet, and leaning in at this stage in my career could actually be critical to happiness with the work-life balance I will have one day when that child arrives.

This example of how Lean In resonated with me is certainly not the only one, but there are far too many stories, anecdotes, and raw data from the book that I would love to discuss to fit in this publication. The book is filled with endnote references that back up Ms. Sandberg’s propositions; interested readers can look to the back of the book for a source, then read further on the topics that interest them.

Still, there are some points Ms. Sandberg makes that, if taken too far or if not carefully thought through, could potentially harm readers, especially women entering legal careers. For example, Ms. Sandberg discusses the fact that women tend not to negotiate their salaries, encourages women to do so, and gives tips for effective negotiation as a woman. While this is an excellent discussion topic, young female lawyers and soon-to-be lawyers should take the current economic situation into consideration before employing Ms. Sandberg’s suggestions on this subject. Hard negotiation in the current economy, where there are many lawyers and not-so-many jobs available for them to fill, could be extremely risky. Lawyers (including male lawyers, in this case) should spend some time weighing the risks and benefits involved before following Ms. Sandberg’s advice on this issue.

In conclusion, while not expressly aimed at women in the legal profession, the points Ms. Sandberg makes in Lean In apply to us just as well as to those other careers mentioned in the book. Many women will find themselves agreeing with Ms. Sandberg’s arguments as they read along, and many will find that she makes unique points they never thought of before. Still, as stated above, it is important for readers to remember to think critically when taking advice, and reflect on what is best in their own particular circumstances before making big decisions in their lives. In any case, Lean In is an excellent way to start conversation about the issues women face in their legal careers. It has the potential to prompt good mentoring on these subjects so women in our profession make decisions that lead to successful careers, and in the process, help all women in our profession reach our goal of equality. ■


Natalie Lorenz is an ISBA member and an associate at Mathis, Marifian & Richter, Ltd. in Belleville, Illinois. She can be reached at nlorenz@mmrltd.com. <http://www.mmrltd.com/attorneys/bio/natalie_lorenz.html>

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