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Is the “Lean In” phenomenon working for women in leadership?

4 min read


About a year ago, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, went against the advice of her career advisers and published a book about women’s leadership called “Lean In.”

She was told by wise people that writing “Lean In” would end her business career, but she did it anyway. She says that, up until that point, she’s spent her career not talking about being a woman in business, thinking women would be naturally rising to the top. But as her career progressed, she noticed that many of the women around her didn’t progress along with her.

Writing the book didn’t end her career but instead sparked a global dialog about the lack of progress women are making into leadership. Average pay statistics have not budged in a decade (a woman still earns as little as 77% that a man earns), and the number of women holding board seats in the majority of countries is well below 20%. And yet, more and more research comes out noting the correlations between women in leadership and the financial success of the companies that have put them there.

Progress in fits and starts

Cultural change — in a company or in a society — does not come easily. Sandberg reports being told by many male CEOs that she’s “costing them a lot of money” because now their female employees are asking for equal pay. Any man who says those words — maybe thinking he’s joking? — has absolutely no idea how demoralizing that is for his female employees to hear. The CEO just admitted he knows he got a bargain on you because of your gender, and he’s not happy about paying full price. Loyalty? Time to find another job.

However, it is promising to note that the impact of “Lean In” has had some positive results at the top, including at Cisco. Last year, after reading the book, CEO John Chambers admitted to his employees and the world that he and his company had not done enough to help women succeed and that this had to change. Chambers’ commitment is part of a multiyear strategy inside Cisco to put diversity issues front and center for every manager.

While hiring diverse leaders has been discussed for over a decade, Cisco has picked up its efforts in recent years and has initiated the use of its collaboration technology to support employees’ work-life needs and measure the implementation and results of diversity hiring goals. Its commitment seems to be paying off, with a 2013 recognition by Working Mother magazine as a top workplace for working mothers. The company also celebrated receiving the working mom of the year award, which went to employee Ileana Rivera.

It’s up to us

Corporate efforts like these are encouraging, but the deeper message of “Lean In” for women — and, frankly, any group underrepresented in leadership (which are many) — is to shoulder the personal responsibility for figuring out how to unlearn what society has taught you about leadership and step up to (i.e., lean in to) your half of the challenge.

Sandberg and other advocates of women in leadership (myself included) note that the cultural stories we all know about what a “good leader” looks like (i.e., authoritarian, white male) have to be debunked one person at a time. Many women and men are doing this, every day in many ways, which is why research is showing that women make strong leaders. So the lesson of “Lean In” for many individual women is to put away any excuses they have for not accomplishing their leadership goals and go for it, despite a still-often unsupportive culture.

At the end of the day, each one of us can only ask ourselves whether we’re doing all we can to lean in to our goals and objectives. What’s your answer? Mine is yes!

Please join me on Feb. 19 for a livestream “Take The Lead Challenge” event on with a live keynote speech by Sheryl Sandberg and a panel of women in the media experts. The event will be recorded and is free of charge. Register here to receive the link.

Dana Theus is a speaker, writer and CEO of InPower Consulting, reframing leadership to integrate the emotional intelligence lessons learned from studying women leaders. Theus is also a personal brand coach and a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.