When Sheryl Sandberg was pregnant with her first child, she was a senior executive at Google. She had gained a lot of weight — 70 pounds — and suffered nausea throughout the pregnancy. Google's parking lots were vast, and she would lumber across them, until one day she decided things had to change.
"The next day, I marched in — or more like waddled in — to see Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their office, which was really just a large room with toys and gadgets strewn all over the floor," Sandberg recounts in her excellent new book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead." "I found Sergey in a yoga position in the corner and announced that we needed pregnancy parking, preferably sooner than later. He looked up at me and agreed immediately, noting that he had never thought about it before."
Sandberg, now chief operating officer of Facebook, notes that she, and other pregnant women at Google, had suffered silently until she said something. "Having one pregnant woman at the top — even one who looked like a whale — made the difference," she writes.
"Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead" is Sandberg's feminist call to arms to women. After watching women demur in meetings, suffer in silence, shrink away from grabbing promotions and drop out of the workforce when they become mothers, Sandberg had had enough. If this continues, men — who continue to lead most nations, most states, most cities, most corporations and most everything else except the home — will always run everything, she argues. That has to change if we truly want equality.
It's time, she writes, that women stop taking a back seat to men.
The answer, she writes, is for women to "lean in" to their careers. Speaking to graduates of all-women Barnard College in 2011, she said, "you will find something you love doing and you will do it with gusto. Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top."
Of course, for many women, "leaning in" is easy until children come along. Most workplaces don't make it easy to be a pregnant or working mom, and society doesn't cheer us on either.
If a career is like a marathon, Sandberg writes, "male marathoners are routinely cheered on: 'Lookin' Strong! On your way!' But the female runners hear a different message. 'You know you don't have to do this!' the crowd shouts. Or 'Good start — but you probably won't want to finish!'"
By the end of the marathon, she writes, the men are still hearing encouragement, while the women hear, "Why are you running when your children need you at home?"
Working moms know this is true. I am asked often how I do it, and who is taking care of the kids. My husband is not questioned in this way. I used to work part time and I would always make sure to say so, as if to say, oh, no worries, I am also devoted to my kids, as if working full time meant less than full devotion. My admission that I work always carried a note of apology.
These signals, along with workplaces that make it hard to run families with two working parents, cause a lot of women to ease up on careers as they have children. Some, if they can afford to, drop out altogether. A 2007 survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that only half of the women who graduated in the 1990s were working full time, she writes.
Most of the book is written to urge women to aspire to greatness, offering practical advice about how to do that. There are tips about how to negotiate your salary, ask for promotions, speak up, navigate your career and set boundaries that make it possible to have a life outside work. She also offers thoughts on how to get a partner to take on half of the housekeeping and child-rearing duties, essential ingredients to making it all work.
She points out that many behaviors women adopt in the workplace are self-defeating. In one chapter, "Sit at the Table," Sandberg describes hosting a breakfast at Facebook with Silicon Valley executives and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
"Our invited guests, mostly men, grabbed plates and food and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner's team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats."
Take your seat, she writes. Speak up. Don't leave money on the table.
Sandberg describes negotiating her compensation after receiving an offer from Facebook. She was dying to take the job, she writes, and felt uncomfortable asking for better terms.
"I could play hardball, but then maybe Mark would not want to work with me," she writes. "But right before I was about to say yes, my exasperated brother-in-law, Marc Bodnick, blurted out, 'Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do the same job?'"
She negotiated, got more money, a longer contract and was invited to buy into the company. Facebook went public. Asking for more paid off.
For all its practicality, Sandberg's advice sometimes can seem contradictory. She tells women to speak up, but also describes hiring a communications coach to help her speak less in meetings. She urges women to "lean in" and go for big ambitious assignments, but also recommends working sensible hours. Be assertive, she writes, but don't be afraid to cry at the office.
It's also hard to square the "everywoman" Sheryl Sandberg of the book with the Sheryl Sandberg who became the Treasury secretary's chief of staff and is now COO of one of the most valuable companies on the planet. In her book, she tells many stories that make her appear frazzled, nervous and insecure. For example, in one, she describes her intense reaction to being named one of Forbes' World's 100 Most Powerful Women.
"Far from feeling powerful, I felt embarrassed and exposed. When colleagues at Facebook stopped me in the halls to say congratulations, I pronounced the list 'ridiculous.' When friends posted a link on Facebook, I asked them to take it down."
Her executive assistant told her to knock it off, and she did. "I was showing too many people how uncomfortable I felt and revealing my insecurity," Sandberg writes. "Instead, I needed to simply say 'Thank you.'"
Sandberg uses these stories to show she is just like everyone else, and to share lessons she learned. And sure, this lesson is a good one: Don't undermine accolades; just say 'thank you' and move on.
And yet, throughout the book we are reminded how little she is like everyone else — one story involving her children having lice takes place aboard eBay's private jet. We don't hear enough about the qualities that got her where she is. What about her prompted Larry Summers to take her on as a protege while she was a student at Harvard? What is she like as a person, really? I cannot believe she is really a mess.
A telling anecdote that suggests she isn't a mess at all — and never has been — comes early on in the book. Her younger brother and sister give a funny toast at her wedding:
"Hi! Some of you think we are Sheryl's younger siblings, but really we were Sheryl's first employees — employee number one and employee number two. Initially, as a one-year-old and a three-year-old, we were worthless and weak. ... But Sheryl could see we had potential. For more than ten years, Sheryl took us under her wing and whipped us into shape."
That sounds like someone who would go on to become one of the leaders of a world-changing company.
The book can also dwell on small issues despite its grand message. An entire chapter — "Are you my mentor?" — is devoted to telling women who assertively seek mentors that they are doing it wrong. Women who ask strangers to be their mentors aren't going to get anywhere, she writes.
"Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works, and yet I see women attempt this all the time," she writes. "When I give speeches, or attend meetings, a startling number of women introduce themselves and, in the same breath, ask me to be their mentor. I cannot recall a single man asking me to do the same."
As true as this may be, this is an awfully small-bore issue for a book devoted to cheering women on to greatness. Sure, some women may be going about this all wrong, but at least they are ambitious and assertive.
Even so, Sandberg made me want to buy a stack of her books and give them to my fellow working mom friends. I want my daughter, who is 7, to read it someday, although I hope these issues are resolved by the time she enters the workforce.
This is because Sandberg is right. We cannot expect to improve our lot very much if we don't go out there and do it ourselves. And that means, as she puts it, "leaning in" to our careers. Her book is at its best when it is urging us to reach higher.
"The hard work of generations before us means that equality is within our reach," she writes. "We can close the leadership gap now. Each individual's success can make success a little easier for the next. We can do this — for ourselves, for one another, for our daughters, for our sons. If we push hard now, this next wave can be the last wave. In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will be just leaders."
Trine Tsouderos is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.
By Sheryl Sandberg, Knopf, 240 pages, $24.95
Sheryl Sandberg will discuss "Lean In" with Joycelyn Winnecke, Chicago Tribune vice president/associate editor, at 6 p.m. March 28 in the Palmer House Hilton. For details, visit printersrowjournal.com.