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Book Review Series


Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Reviewed by Amy Brantly


Lean In – A Call For More Feminist Leaders

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, has received varying reviews ranging from seething criticism to laudable applause.  When I first picked up this book, I’ll admit, I was prepared to dislike Sheryl Sandberg.  I had heard that her book harshly criticized women who leaned back from leadership roles in the office because they chose to spend more time with their children and believed that they could not do both.  Several reviewers protested that Sandberg’s vision is unrealistic for most – she is a millionaire who can afford the best child care and is in a position to make demands that fit her life and have others bend to meet her needs.  As a hard-working lawyer and mother of three young children, I was prepared to be defensive.  

I, however, found myself liking Sheryl Sandberg and her opinions.  I agree with many of her criticisms, perhaps, because I have made so many of the career mistakes she discusses in her book and (in hindsight) wish I would have made different choices.  I also do not believe that she is advocating one path for all of womankind – I think she is clear that her book is aimed at helping women who want a fulfilling career, want to be a leader, want to help other women succeed in male-dominated industries and want to have a family (and do all of these things successfully).  I don’t think Sandberg demands that all women should choose to lean-in at work or should feel like failures if they make other choices.  If you have made other choices, and are completely happy with your choices, this book is probably not for you.   For women who do want to excel in the office and who want or have children, I think this book is a must-read.  It is a must-read, not because Sandberg lays out a roadmap that we should all follow blindly without giving thought to the particular circumstances of our jobs or families, but because it is an opportunity to learn and understand that there are often different ways to interact in the office (some of which are not intuitive – or at least not intuitive to me) and hers may be advice that you wouldn’t receive elsewhere. Most of her advice is not new to me – I’ve read many of the same tips in other books on the same or similar topics.  But, Sandberg does a nice job of pulling lots of information, research and statistics together and putting them in one easy to read and entertaining source.

Sandberg talks about “reignit[ing] the revolution” and advocates that “[w]e move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.”  It is in this sense that Sandberg is asking women to take up the cause, a cause maybe all women do not endorse.  Being a feminist and someone who not only wants to be personally successful but wants to create a brighter future for all women and girls, I find this sentiment appealing and important.   

There are several points that Sandberg makes that I think are particularly interesting:

·     Don’t be afraid to negotiate

Sandberg offers advice for how to successfully negotiate by suggesting that women communicate that they are acting for the common good and not just for their personal gain (because research shows that women who only act for their personal gain are disliked and mistrusted).  Sandberg jokes that negotiation for women is like “trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels.”  This is another area where Sandberg has opened herself up for criticism – should women have to play by different rules, shouldn’t we refuse to play into stereotypes?  She responds by suggesting that having a better understanding of the other side leads to a superior outcome.  Whether you agree with this or not – it is a good thing to be cognizant of.  And I think it is wise to always try to know your audience - be it a judge, opposing counsel or your employer.  It is unlikely that they will all have the same views about women but understanding bias and carefully crafting our positions and language may lead to more favorable outcomes. 


·     Finding the right partner is crucial – you must share the load.

This bit of advice is often overlooked in work-life balance discussions.  I’ve often heard women ask: “How can I manage a household, manage the childcare, and work 40+ hours a week?”  The answer is, you probably can’t.  You can do those things for a while, but sooner or later you will reach a breaking point.  It is “more possible” to work 40+ hours a week and share household and childcare duties.  Finding a partner who wants a less traditional model, wants a working wife, expects to take on an active role in raising children and expects to take on household duties is crucial to having a successful career.  In this sense, marriage is a true partnership.  All tasks are shared, both partners contribute financially, both spend time raising the children and both spend time managing the household chores.  Children, in turn grow up seeing a mommy with a career and financial independence, and seeing a daddy who does dishes and makes school lunches.  Almost every successful woman I have read about credits their success in part to their husband’s participation in managing child and home responsibilities, including a recent interview WLALA featured with Assistant Presiding Judge Carolyn Kuhl who suggested that women “marry a feminist.” 

·     You Likely Can’t Plan Your Career Path – “It’s a Jungle Gym. Not a Ladder.”

 Sandberg explains that the concept of “climbing the corporate ladder” no longer applies.  She believes that greater career fulfillment results if we are open to forging our own unique path.  She calls this the jungle gym because on a jungle gym, there are many paths to the top.  She notes in this section of her book that all of our paths are different, and many women take time off or take a parallel route before they start to climb again.  Through her own experiences, Sandberg explains how she accepted employment opportunities that often varied from her plans.  I agree that in this day and age, and in this economy, it is wise to be open to new opportunities, new paths and as Sandberg reminds us – to always be looking for what offers the most growth.

·     Change comes from addressing the issues.

I know many women and men who are sick of the work-life balance discussion and would just as soon stop talking about it.  I’m sure there are many others who are also tired of discussing the lack of female equity partners at big firms and the drop-out rate among both men and women in the law profession.  I believe, however, that far more men and women would like to see change in the legal profession and would benefit from it.  Not everyone can fit into the mold required to succeed at most law firms and many frankly don’t want to. 

Sandberg discusses changes that were instituted at Harvard Business School (HBS) to address the fact that American male students were academically outperforming both female and international students.  In order to close this gap, Dean Nitin Nohria tasked an expert on gender and diversity, some professors and the first female Associate Dean with examining the school’s culture and classrooms.  They used the knowledge they gathered to make small changes to the language used in class (for example, switching to a more communal definition of leadership) and introduced small group projects  to encourage collaboration among those who would not naturally work together.  They also added a field course which did not require that students contribute in front of large classes.  As a result of this work, the performance gap virtually disappeared and all groups reported higher levels of happiness.

This example made me wonder whether small incremental changes at large law firms would result in greater happiness and more equality in success rates.  I think this example underscores the importance of the work being performed by the WLALA and LACBA Joint Task Force – a task force of women leaders in law who brainstorm on ways to improve the promotion and retention of women lawyers at large law firms.  For those who want change Sandberg reminds us that “social gains are never handed out” and must be seized.

Amy T. Brantly is a Senior Attorney with Goldberg, Lowenstein & Weatherwax LLP and WLALA’s Communications Officer.


*If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact the WLALA Communications Officer, Amy Brantly at