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Don’t Lean In. Find Balance.


Lean InSheryl Sandberg’s new book (Lean In) is out or should I say “in.” Her message to women is to be more ambitious, grab a seat at the table, raise your hand, and take credit for the work you’ve done. She believes that women have a tendency to lean backward as they consider whether and when to start a family. By “leaning backward” she means that women don’t make decisions that would move their career forward. They make choices that will enable them to step away from work. She also believes that women ought to choose partners who are willing to share housework and childcare responsibilities more equally than heterosexual couples tend to do.

Sandberg cites a lot of studies and statistics to bolster her argument: how women do two times as much housework and three times as much childcare in dual-working couples; how just a small percentage of women lead companies and nonprofits; how the numbers of women at the upper levels of government and industry have not improved over the past 9 years. It’s hard to argue with these statistics or Sandberg’s credentials. She went to Harvard Business School, achieved a great deal of professional and financial success with Google, and has been the COO of Facebook since 2008. But Lean In. The message is simple–overly simple, I believe. As is the message about choosing a partner who’s willing to split childcare and housework evenly. As is the message about taking credit for career advancement instead of claiming it’s largely a product of luck.

I confess that I have not yet read the book, but I did watch the speech Sandberg gave to the graduating class of Barnard. She gave a similar talk at TED, too, which has over 2 million views. In these appearances, Sandberg encourages women to be more ambitious, to keep the pedal to the metal–the way men do. At the same time, however, she seems to advocate for finding a healthy work/life balance. Are both possible? Yes, women can probably stand to “lean in” a bit more, but I think the problem also lies with men who lead unbalanced lives.

Gender roles aren’t as rigidly defined as they were in previous generations, but messages are still drilled into us by our parents and marketers. While a perfect split of housework and childcare responsibilities is desirable and fair, it’s probably not realistic in the short term. Men still feel the pressure to be providers, and that pressure leads to imbalance and the need to appear confident/successful. It’s true that confidence and success tends to lead to more confidence and success, but I think that men and women would be better served by admitting to the role luck and connections play in their career advancement. Sandberg does so, and I applaud her for that. More men should do the same.

Sandberg notes that there is a positive correlation between likeability and success for men, and a negative correlation between likeability and success for women. She has suffered from the dislike, but has committed to succeeding–the way men do. Her message to women is to follow her path, even though they likely will be disliked for doing so.

I find people who have a good work/life balance to be the most likeable–men and women. Rather than lobby for women to act more like men, the way Sandberg does, I think men and women would be better served by improving balance and honesty, not leaning. How about you?

About the Author

Gary Cohen is a highly-skilled Executive Coach, Leadership Author, Trainer, and International Keynote Speaker. His clients range from entrepreneurial CEOs of the nation’s fastest-growing companies to executives of global 100 companies. He differentiates himself from traditional (psycho/therapeutic) executive coaches by bringing a vast amount of business experience as a former Founder / President of one the Nation’s Fastest growing companies. He is the author of Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions (McGraw Hill). Gary B. Cohen Full Bio

  • Lisa Chase

    Gary, I would say your view is idealistic. As you correctly point out societal influences play a huge role in who we become. Who we become based on these influences are the people who populate the business world. Anyone who succeeds financially, reaches a C-level position, is a strong political voice or has a large sphere of influence as a thought leader pays a price. Sandberg is offering sound advice for women who want to suceed in the here and now, and letting them know up front about the costs. Let’s hope enough people want to achieve that success and are then able to make some changes from a position of power.

  • Cathy Paper

    I didn’t hear Sandberg say act more like a man. I heard her say expect more of yourself. Don’t make excuses before you’ve given it a shot. A guy would not decline a promotion if he were going to have a baby, why should a woman. She’s just creating a language for women to articulate what they are thinking about and trying to solve late at night when they can’t sleep. Look forward to more discussion after you read the book.

    • Gary B Cohen

      Comment taken. Just seems that many of the expectations that have come with our culture are having a toll on both men and women. I have seen many men, not the ones that Sandberg competes with for opportunities pass on career achievement and lift their expectations for themselves in other parts of their lives. I think the dialog gets too limited when it is a gender discussion. Cathy, I can say this too you and those that know how I think without being accused of not understanding women and men in the context of society and the appalling way discrimination has effected our culture. Thanks for making sure your opinion is heard, it needs to be!

  • Charlene Zietsma

    Gary, you state that splitting housework and childcare responsibilities is not realistic because men feel the pressure to be providers. Yet many women are the providers or co-providers now. It is only when women demand that men take up their share of home responsibilities (or men volunteer to), that men will achieve more work/life balance — many seem to discover they actually enjoy spending time with their children! And when the home imbalance is fixed, more workplaces will find that workers of both genders will refuse to work the insane hours that are possible when a spouse is doing all the “life” in the work/life balance, and their expectations will necessarily ratchet down. It’s worth a shot, anyway, because the alternatives (exhaustion, self-sacrifice and blocked career advancement for women, limited “life” and relationships with spouse and children for men) are distasteful for most.

    • Gary B Cohen


      I wish a culture could change as quickly as those who see the issue appear. As we know, sadly this imbalance has been going on for 1,000 of years and in our country since it’s inception. It has made great progress and has so much further to go to meet the thought leaders like yourself. Sadly when we arrive we will still be behind what is ever the newest awareness at a time. Thank goodness people like Sandberg are willing to put a position out there and take the support and criticism that goes with it.

      This response reminds me of a new favorite quote from a speech by Teddy Roosevelt given at the Sorbonne in Paris.

      “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

      We all need to be in the discussion and drive change or stay silent.

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