A friend once commented to me that the difference between our moms and us is that when we asked our moms “What’s for dinner?” they actually knew. I smirked at the truth in this statement, as I’ve had my own kids ask me this question as late as 5:00 p.m., while I was still mulling over the many options we have for this fine meal. However, it has come to my attention that there are many other things that our moms “knew” that we are still deciding as we go. There are a plethora of choices surrounding women today, certainly more than what our mothers and grandmothers had before them.

Doing vs. Having

I was first “introduced” to Sheryl Sandberg (currently the COO of Facebook), when developing the class “Women in Management” last year. We viewed her TEDx talk on “leaning in,” and thought she was extremely articulate and effective in encouraging women in their professional lives. With her new book on this topic, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sandberg continues this conversation and talks about the choices women make and how many of these choices result in a void of women in the upper boardrooms across the world. This “leadership ambition gap” that she describes comes from women believing the notion that they can’t have it all, and that they need to make a choice between their personal and professional lives. She writes that “For many women, the assumption is that trying to do both is difficult at best and impossible at worst” (Sandberg 23). Sandberg espouses that “not only can women have both families and careers, they can thrive while doing so” (23-24). This sounds like typical feminist rhetoric, but what I found interesting is that in the last third of the book, she softens and qualifies some of the assertions made in the beginning of the book. In one such chapter, she talks about, “The Myth of Doing It All.” I found it interesting that she used the word “doing” as opposed to “having,” which is how we typically hear this phrase. Based on Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker’s research, Sandberg believes that “The right question is not ‘Can I do it all?” but ‘Can I do what’s most important for me and my family?’” (138-139). This is a definite distinction to the notion of “having it all.” In reality, this will look vastly different for each woman, depending on her choices and life circumstances, including the corporate culture she is working under (is it a good match with her personal goals), her spouse, if married (is he her biggest cheerleader), and her emotional intelligence (how does she cope when she has a full load).

Rethinking the Corporate Ladder

Sandberg uses the analogy of the jungle gym in her chapter, “It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder” (52). On a ladder, there is only one way to the top, but with a jungle gym one has a variety of paths they can take to arrive at the top (Sandberg 53). Actually, I prefer the reference to the “labyrinth” that Eagly and Carli use in their book Through the Labyrinth. It is rather like a maze to navigate one’s career these days. We do hit walls in our career at times. When you hit a wall, you back up and look for another route to take. Since jungle gyms do not have walls, the labyrinth seems a more precise metaphor. However, whether we use the labyrinth or jungle gym reference, I think it can be agreed that the “corporate ladder” has a new face to it in our generation.

Women as Leaders

Choices. They will be different for everyone, and not all of them will lead us to the boardroom. I must admit, I was a little baffled by the reference in her book title to “…And The Will To Lead.” It seems that she is referring only to leading in the corporate sense. As women, we have innumerable choices and opportunities to lead in so many other ways. We lead our children, we lead many of our friends through circumstances they are facing, we lead in our children’s schools. (Have you ever led a bunch of PTA moms? I have, and let me tell you, it can test the character of any leader, any day!) Although Sandberg desires that there be more women in the upper echelons of corporations around the world, she acknowledges that women have to make choices that work for them. Women will need to set priorities in order to fulfill what is most important for them and their family. These won’t all lead a woman to the top of a Fortune 500 company. What seems to bother her is that women are not giving it their all before they have to worry about “doing it all” and are making their choices based on limiting factors.

While some chapters deal with the state of where things are (“Leadership Ambition Gap,” “Success and Likeability,” and “It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder”), there are several other titles that encourage women in their work endeavor. These chapters are worth the price of the book; and if you only read five chapters, these are the ones I recommend:

  • “Sit at the Table” (Chapter 2)
  • “Are You My Mentor?” (Chapter 5)
  • “Seek and Speak Your Truth” (Chapter 6)
  • “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” (Chapter 7)
  • “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” (Chapter 8)

These chapters could also be entitled:

  • Don’t discount your contribution, especially when invited to the table.
  • Be good at what you do, and you will get a mentor.
  • Be authentic.
  • “Keep your foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made” (Sandberg 103).
  • Choose your spouse carefully!

Shaking the Feelings of Self-Doubt

In her chapter, “Sit at the Table,” Sandberg talks about the internal battle women encounter within themselves, and how they often hold themselves back due to the self-doubt that seeps into their thinking (28). When we look at the differences between men and women, Sandberg states, “women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is” (29). Her experience has shown her that she “needed to make both an intellectual and an emotional adjustment” (Sandberg 33). Shaking the feelings of self-doubt and re-adjusting the “distortion” in our thinking is a critical piece to moving forward.

The Mentor Perspective

Sandberg has found a trend in mentoring that I found interesting, and alarming at the same time. She states, “…searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming” (Sandberg 66). As helpful as mentors are, the emphasis on waiting for that mentor to make a difference is teaching our women to be “too dependent on others” (Sandberg 66). Rather, she encourages women based on research that “…mentors select protégés based on performance and potential” (Sandberg 68). Wise advice, to not just be good at what you do, but to be excellent, as this will garner the attention of potential mentors to want to come alongside you.

Queen Bee Insecurity Trumps Authenticity

Be authentic. There is such a stereotype of the woman who rises to the top of her vocation, often at the expense of authenticity, as seen in Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Even The Wall Street Journal produced an article this last March from Peggy Drexler on “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.” Could there actually be such women today who hold other women back from moving forward? They allow their insecurity to trump their authenticity. Perhaps one day we’ll see a reality show where they place five “Queen Bees” in one room and wait to see what happens.

Strengthen Your Future Choices

The analogy of keeping one’s foot on the gas pedal until you even need to think about slowing down is a well-worded picture (Sandberg 103). This is especially true for women who desire to marry and “settle-down” (however they might define this term). Do not discount your current possibilities because of future desires. You can only strengthen your future choices by staying strong and moving forward in your current opportunities. Sandberg speaks of women who have put on the brakes before needed: “By the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career than she would have been had she not leaned back…By not finding ways to stretch herself in the years leading up to motherhood, she has fallen behind” (94). I personally can attest to this, as it took my husband and me over five years to become pregnant. Had I stopped excelling and moving forward in my career at the initial thought of having a baby, it may not have allowed me to step back in with the same opportunities available to me fifteen years later!

Mutuality in Career, Family Goals, and Responsibilities

The selection of a spouse is a significant choice in a woman’s career success. However, having a husband who is supportive of his wife’s dreams is just as important as the wife supporting her husband’s career dreams. Find someone secure enough to be your biggest cheerleader, with whom there is mutuality in career, family goals, and responsibilities. I know from my own personal experience that this has been essential to pursuing what I love; and with three kids at home, it is definitely a team effort.

The Struggle with Trade-Offs

I was glad to see that she acknowledges the fact that she struggles with the “trade-offs” she has had to make, admitting that she has a sweet deal with the incredible resources at her disposal, such as a supportive husband, financial resources, ability to hire others at work and home to assist her, as well as a great deal of control over her schedule (Sandberg 134). Truthfully, if she had not owned up to the fact that she has incredible financial resources to lighten her load, it would have been easy to say “Hey, that’s easy for her to say.” Interestingly enough, even the woman from Proverbs 31 had “maidens” to help with the load (verse 15). Somehow this makes me feel better.

What is interesting is that she credits her own mom and grandma as “leaning in” throughout their lives. Neither worked a high-powered job, but both followed their passions. In speaking of her mom, Sandberg writes, “She raised her children, helped her parents spend their final years in dignity and comfort, and continues to be a dedicated and loving wife, mother and grandmother. She has always contributed to her community and the world” (170). This, in her eyes, constitutes a hero.

Keep Your Foot On The Pedal

Overall, Lean In is a well researched (34 pages of reference notes) and thought out plea to women to keep your foot on the pedal. Work at your career as hard as you can and move through the “labyrinth,” as far as you can before you incorporate other personal choices into the work mix. If done right, this will allow you the most flexibility in the choices you encounter later. Should you step out of the game for a while, you will be able to step back in at a level which offers more options.

Often when we have options, we tend to look around us to see what others are doing. Women would do well to stop comparing themselves to others. We each should press forward in a way that encourages who we are and maximizes the strengths that God has specifically given us. The ambivalence of not being what you think you should be, whether it is at home or at work, keeps us in a state of discontent. Andy Stanley put it well when he said, “Celebrate what God has given others, but leverage what God has given you.” What He has given us is for His purpose. Being the mom of triplets allows me the unique opportunity of seeing my three children, all at once, in every phase of their lives. I am still amazed at how different they are, from their talents and temperaments to their individual interests. Helping them to “leverage” how God has blessed them encourages me to acknowledge His divine hand in wiring each of us. Don't be distracted by longing for the gifts of others. Be faithful in how God has gifted you.

Sheryl Sandberg has written an insightful, first hand look at how she has managed her successful career. As well, she seems to have a genuine desire for women to succeed in following their passions. Opening women’s eyes to the internal programming that could possibly steer them off course is a main objective running through her writing. Sandberg’s book is in my top ten list for young executives, both men and women. (Why men? Well, if you have female staff and co-workers, to be a good leader you need to understand the people you are leading and the potential challenges they face.)

I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Sandberg knows what her family is having for dinner tonight?

Works Cited

  • Drexler, Peggy. “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.” The Wall Street Journal. March 6, 2013.
  • Eagly, Alice H. and Carli, Linda L. Through the Labyrinth. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA. 2007.
  • Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2013.