Getting Ahead: Who Should Lean in or Lean Back

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by Kelly Herman

It’s no secret that women in the workplace rarely reach the top of the ladder. There are fewer women than men in leadership positions, which COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg and James Allworth, coauthor of “How Will You Measure Your Life?” hope to change. In the new book “Lean In,” Sandberg explains why women are failing to be as successful as men in the same careers. We caught up with Allworth to discuss “Lean In” and give a few ideas on how women and men can either lean in or lean back to move forward in their jobs and in life.

Sitting at the Desk
In bigwig meetings, Sandberg says that women tend to be wallflowers instead of active members in a discussion. “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side and not at the table,” Sandberg says. For example, after a talk one year, Sandberg took questions from the audience. When she told the audience she would only take two more questions, all of the women put their hands down and the men kept theirs up.

In this case: Women should lean in. This isn’t the ‘50s anymore when women are hardly seen and heard even less. If you don’t take every chance you can get to keep your hand up or take a seat at the desk, you lose the opportunity to be heard and get ahead.

“Lean In” discusses one study on students in a surgery rotation. When asked to evaluate their own performance, female students underrated themselves and male students overrated themselves in comparison with faculty evaluations. Sandberg asserts that women are lacking in the kind of confidence that is getting men ahead. Allworth expresses a different view: “’Lean In’ implies the ones at fault here are the women for not being confident enough in themselves, and they should ‘fake it until they make it.’ The problem is that ‘Lean In’ doesn’t examine the alternative hypothesis, which seems pretty obvious to me: it wasn’t the women who were lacking confidence, but it was the men who were too confident. The men who were more confident in their ability were the ones less likely to do the hard work required to prepare for their surgery rotation.”

In this case: Men should lean back. Confidence is key, but overconfidence that results in underperformance can lead to problems. Doubt can be useful to see where problems may lie ahead, so take a page from the women’s books and don’t get too big for your pants; someone may not always be there to help you hold them up.

Equal Partnership
When male and female parents are both working full time, studies show that instead of dividing the time equally, women usually do double the housework and triple the amount of childcare that the man does. Sandberg and Allworth mainly agree on this point.

In this case: Women should lean in and men should lean back. Women place so much emphasis on starting or maintaining families that they tend to hold back in their careers, Sandberg says, which keeps them from getting back to work when they do finally have kids. If you love what you do, push forward. There is no reason mothers should invest more time in their children than fathers, or less time in their work.

Allworth also explains that men leaning so far into work and not taking part in the rest of life can be detrimental. A way of fixing this is one of allocation. “A strategy is the sum of all the ways we allocate our resources — where we spend our time and money and effort. We can say we have a strategy for having a great relationship with our friends and family, but if we end up dedicating all our time to work, then our strategy will turn out very different from what we say it is.”

Perk: It has been shown that households who have equal earning and equal responsibilities have half the divorce rate, as well as better intimate lives.

Success versus Likability
Sandberg talks about the success story of a woman named Heidi, and how she became extremely successful in her career through networking and contacts. A professor gave her success story to their class, with one change: Heidi’s name was changed to Howard in half of the stories. From the students’ perspective, Howard was seen as a nice, friendly, hard-working guy who everyone wanted to hang out with. Heidi was seen as much less likable, even though the success was hers.

This is a tough one, because as of yet there aren’t any solutions we can offer the present generation. Both authors agree that boys and girls are raised to think differently about the sexes. While “boys will be boys” and are expected to be “leaders,” girls have to “act like ladies” and are called “bossy” when they don’t follow along in a group. This mindset is taught early on. It’s not until children are equally allowed to take the lead, without usurping responsibility or constructive feedback, that we can start to change how we perceive strong women alongside strong men.

In this case: Everyone should lean in to emboldening their children to play up their strengths, instead of encouraging them to emulate past ideals. Lots of pressure is put on boys to be successful and on women to merely be liked. As Allworth puts it, “This idea that men behave in a way that is the gold standard for success is a misplaced one … just being aware of this issue is a big step in the right direction.”


For more information on James Allworth, you can follow him on Twitter at @jamesallworth

For more information on Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In, you can visit the site here:


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