Forget Posture, Lean In

By Emily B. Cyr

Last year, I was one of the many people who heard so much about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I felt like my feminist card would be revoked if I did not read it.  So instead of spending my spring break laying back, I decided to lean in.

A brief summary for those unfamiliar with the book or author, Sheryl Sandberg is an incredibly successful corporate woman, currently serving as the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook (COO). After Sandberg gave a TED Talk in 2010 about the ways women are holding themselves back, she decided to write a book about her own stories.

Now, a couple hundred pages later, the first word that comes to mind when I think of Lean In is overwhelming. Page after page was stuffed with advice and instruction about how to push yourself forward. I felt like I was being bombarded with so many ideas, that I could not keep them straight. What did she say about interviews again? How do I find a mentor? I had not expected to have this reaction and became curious about other girls’ responses on to the book.

Therefore, I decided to ask other Georgetown women who have read Lean In a couple questions including:

1) What was your overall opinion of Lean In?

2) What was the single most important piece of advice that stood out to you and why?

One of the people willing to help me was none other than the co-founder and co-president of Georgetown University Women in Leadership (GUWIL), Alana Snyder (COL ’16). Snyder started off by recognizing some of the criticisms facing Lean In, but stating that she finds it a good book for its target audience: carrier oriented women.  “I’m certainly the demographic to whom she is writing” says Snyder. “For people for whom Lean In’s message does not resonate, there are other material to which they can refer.” Snyder is right and anybody who chooses to read this book should remember that Sandberg does have an intended audience clearly addressed in the often forgotten subtitle of this book “Women, Work and the Will to Lead”.

This was applicable when talking with Julie Williams* (COL ’16), who describes herself as someone who is “not extremely career ambitious” and felt like she was not the target audience. “It is great to be an ambitious woman, and definitely necessary if you want to break into any male-dominated field,” says Williams, but “the sort of ambition she was talking about is not relevant to the majority of us, and perpetuates the idea that your career should be the most important aspect of your life”. Emphasizing that there are many ways ambition can be applied that have nothing to do with big business.  But again, Sandberg is a product of the corporate life, this is where she has found her success, and readers must keep this in mind to understand her advice.

While both Williams and Synder had different reactions to Lean In, they could both easily identify what they thought was Sandberg’s best piece of advice for them.  Snyder focused on the word “mentorship”. “I found it incredibly eye-opening to read that women do not support women” says Snyder. “In a time when women are competing for the few top positions at a company that are open to them, they do not see that they are excluding their counterparts for fear of losing the coveted position that they worked so hard to get. I’ve always tried to create a community of inclusion around me and if someone needs my help, I am happy to be of service. Women need to work together if they want to make any real progress– this battle isn’t going to be won one person at a time; rather, it’s a collective effort”.   It is clear Snyder has taken this idea of mentorship to heart through the establishment of GUWIL and believes there can be community at the same time as competition.

On the other hand, Williams appreciated what Sandberg had to say about female confidence “Women are just as capable as men but they are more likely to second guess themselves, or downplay their accomplishments” said Williams.  “I think it is really important for girls our age to remember that, because if you want to be competitive you need to be confident and be able to advocate for yourself, which a lot of us are not comfortable doing.” This is a problem that I, personally, am constantly working to overcome but agree that if you want anybody to advocate for you, you first have to advocate for yourself.

Despite differing opinions, both of these women seem to have benefitted from this book and I must say I have too and it would be unfair not to share my favorite piece of advice.

Sandberg makes the case that when it comes to applying for jobs, men are much more ambitious while most women will not apply for something unless she is 100% qualified. This stuck out to me because I cannot count the number of jobs or internships that I have not considered because I was missing one qualification.  Sandberg’s advice here completely changed my approach to job research, and now I am applying without hesitation, because if I feel I am qualified, I should not hold myself back.

So for anybody that reminds skeptical about Lean In, stay skeptical but do not let it stop you from hearing Sandberg out. She may make you question your future or wonder if you even have one, but she has the power to show how you, specifically you, can help yourself in ways you have never considered and for that reason, leaning in is better than sitting back.

*Name has been changed.