Sheryl Sandberg says the scarcity of women at the top levels of corporations, nonprofits and government is due to women dropping out before they get there. Dropping out, in a sense, even before they’re out of the workforce.
That’s part of the Facebook chief operating officer’s message in her first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg says many women worry that professional success would stand in the way of their ability to successfully raise children. Because of this fear, women tend to “lean back” in their careers (often well before they even marry), subconsciously making time in their lives by not seeking promotions or taking on challenging projects.
But those actions may ultimately lead to them leaving the workforce. She explains that, if a woman’s goal is to return to work after having a child, for instance, the job better be really good because leaving the child at home is very hard. “And if two years ago you didn’t take a promotion and the guy next to you did, and if three years ago, you stopped looking for new opportunities, you’re going to be bored because you should’ve kept your foot on the gas pedal. Don’t leave before you leave. Stay in.”
Sandberg, a former Google executive before taking the No. 2 job at Facebook, says women also tend to underestimate their abilities and fail to take credit for their successes. “Women shortchange their own contributions from the very start, and this underestimation is expensive for both you and others,” she said in her commencement speech to the 2011 Barnard College graduating class. “Because when you underestimate yourself, you lessen the impact you can have.”
In Lean In, she says women attribute their success to other factors–luck, getting help from someone, working extra hard. Compounding the problem is that society doesn't regard successful women as favorably as successful men. She cites a Harvard case study involving female venture capitalist Heidi Roizen. In a Columbia University study on gender stereotypes, students read two versions of the Harvard case study–one with the VC's real name and another calling her Howard Roizen. Students tended to like the guy, but were put off a bit by the woman, deeming her methods too political or self-serving. The versions were identical save for the VC's name.
Sandberg has called the book a “call to action” for women, and the Lean In website that debuted with the book's release in March, offers topics critical to success, such as negotiating effectively and understanding one’s strengths.