The Lean In book club

Depending on who you believe, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ is either a significant turning point in the feminist debate or a book that presents women with unattainable goals. We asked a group of women (and men) for their verdict on the controversial bestseller. In conversation with Róisín Ingle


Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead has done exactly what she hoped it would, flying off the shelves and sparking a heated debate about women, equality and work.

In the book, the mother of two explores how women hold themselves back at work by not sitting at the table, putting their hands up in meetings or actively seeking promotion. (Waiting for a boss to acknowledge your hard work and give you a raise is, in Sandbergspeak, the career equivalent of waiting around to be rescued by Prince Charming.)

Instead of leaning back she encourages women to “lean in” to the challenges of the workplace. Her “don’t leave before you leave” credo is a clarion call to women who she says allow their career aspirations to diminish because of future plans to start a family.

“The moment a woman starts thinking about having a child, she doesn’t raise her hand anymore,” she writes, encouraging women to “keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave”. Elsewhere, she maintains that women need to make their partner “a real partner”, saying that for women to achieve more at work their partners need to contribute more at home.

What she calls her “sort of feminist manifesto” has been attacked and praised in equal measure, with some finding it difficult to take career advice from a woman as privileged, smart, successful and attractive as Sandberg.

We asked a selection of women and a couple of men what they thought of Sandberg’s controversial advice. To join the conversation visit

Sinéad McSweeney
Twitter’s director of public policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa

I had resolved not to read this book, anticipating that I would spend the entire 173 pages fighting anger, harbouring resentment and feeling defensive. Actually I found myself nodding and smiling as Sandberg described events both at home and at work which resonated with my own experiences. She cleverly wards off her critics or likely detractors in the first chapter by deploying effectively the negotiation, communication and leadership skills she advocates throughout the book.

As well as being an intelligent, considered and occasionally witty personal and professional account of a successful career, it’s a useful precis of the writings or theories of some of the top business and leadership thinkers of our time, although it’s not clear that this is necessarily what the author intended it to be.

The question is whether Sandberg, other than bringing all of those ideas together in one place, actually brings anything new to the table. The challenges and dilemmas at the heart of this debate are intensely personal. Inevitably we read books like this through the lens of our own experience.

For me the greatest challenge is not leaning in or leaning out. Rather it is about answering a simple question from my four-year-old son who wants to know why, when he is off school for two weeks, I am going to work and not staying home to “mind” him.

I hope that in time he will appreciate that the balance I seek in my life is driven in part by an aspiration that he and his peers, both male and female, will face choices less complicated by perceived social norms – but I will never be sure. And I’m not convinced that Sandberg is either.

Rhona Blake
Managing director of Fleishman-Hillard International Communications

I suspect that while the talented and creative Mark Zuckerberg is bestriding the planet in his T-shirt, it is Sheryl Sandberg who is running the show back at Facebook and doing it incredibly well. One of Sandberg’s significant points is that it is no longer the glass ceiling of old that is holding women back. She identifies a new type of glass ceiling – the ambition gap – and says that women start preparing early on in their careers not to be business leaders because they know they will go on to have children and the parenting responsibilities that ensue, placing leadership out of their reach. She suggests that women are failing themselves by doing this.

There is still resistance to female appointees on boards and this was borne out again just recently when up-to-date statistics on women in senior positions and at board level in this country were published. In my own experience in business, I believe that many companies are missing out on more than just gender balance and I think the whole issue of diversity at senior executive level – gender, age, relevant experience, culture, ethnic background – should be considered in a broader sense.

I think Lean In gives women the confidence to link their own issues with this wider diversity discussion.

Anne O’ Leary
CEO of Vodafone Ireland where she set up a women’s network for employees

Sandberg should be congratulated for writing a book that gives women and men a chance to talk about gender issues at work. I spent a large chunk of my professional life pretending these issues didn’t exist and thinking that if I worked hard enough I would get my reward. But I see now that this was just about trying to fit in to a traditional environment. The book shows how important it is to speak out about the issues, acknowledge gender differences and strive for equality in the workplace. The message “don’t leave before you leave” is superb. We all know women who have held back from taking extra responsibility because of concern about impending motherhood. She also talks about making sure your partner is a “real partner”, but I have to say most of the senior women I speak to have “real partners”, who support them and share the load. I agree with her that men should be encouraged to lean in to the family as much as women should lean in to their careers.

She is a great example to other women that they can aspire to lead and reach the top of their chosen profession. The book is a must-read for business leaders and parents who can influence future working conditions by encouraging gender awareness in their children.

Paul Carroll
Former managing partner of
A&L Goodbody

Much of Sandberg’s analysis covers issues that aren’t gender specific but simply the gritty stuff of career demands. The delivery is often saccharine: She encourages women to smile frequently and use ‘we’, not ‘I’. Expressly acknowledging the biological differences between men and women is unnecessary. A great believer in hard data, she cites professorial research to illustrate that “women knew the answers just as well or even better than men”. This is trite and annoying. Regrettably but predictably, Sandberg’s analysis reflects American corporate culture which does not accommodate work-life balance, the key to the issue.

American attitudes do not yet prevail in Europe. Sandberg points out the astonishing fact that of the leading industrialised nations, the US alone does not have a paid maternity leave policy. She also highlights the dramatic recent increase in working hours. Such culture impedes progress as much as any obsolete prejudice. The solution lies in old-fashioned common sense and cop on – terms not found in this book. This is a worthy business manual but its merit lies not so much in its content but in whatever progress comes from the debate it generates.

Orla O’Connor
Director of the National Women’s
Council of Ireland

Anything that encourages discussion about gender and equality is positive in my book. Reading this from the perspective of what Sandberg calls a “career-loving parent” with a three-year-old son, I found a lot to like but I’m just not sure about some of Sandberg’s key messages. I think women are making choices and being forced into certain decisions depending on whether family-friendly policies are in operation where they work. The “don’t leave before you leave” strategy isn’t always an option. She has sophisticated arguments, bolstered by lots of research and statistics but it’s mostly about what woman can do as individuals to change the status quo when what it should be about is challenging the institutional and structural barriers to women’s progress. She writes about the time she worked at Google while heavily pregnant and had to park her car quite a distance from the office entrance. She used this experience to persuade her bosses to create special car parking spaces for pregnant employees. But if you are in a minimum wage job in a supermarket you are not going to be influential enough to make those changes. She is in a real position of privilege while many women, unfortunately, are not in a position to Lean In.

Mary O’Rourke
Former Fianna Fáil Minister and author
of best-selling memoir Just Mary

I was exhausted after reading this book and blown away by the sheer energy of the woman. I loved her ideas but I think the lean in call to action is a bit limp – I’d be inclined to say leap in. It struck me that without knowing it I was leaning in when in 1982 Charlie Haughey suggested I be spokesperson for Women’s Affairs. I told him “no, thank you”, I didn’t want to only speak about women’s issues. So I leapt in, and he offered me education instead. I like how the book is so personal and I like her idea that women need to combine niceness with insistence.
I’ll be recommending this book to younger women, it would have been very useful to me when I was in politics. Strip away all her money and the home help and the wonderful husband and it’s still full of sound advice. If I had a criticism it would be that she didn’t touch on gender quotas once. I’d like to know what she thinks about that issue.

Mark Ryan
Country managing director of Accenture Ireland where 38 per cent of senior
executives are women

I enjoyed the book but struggled a bit with Sandberg’s idea that if a woman is successful people will dislike her. That really hasn’t been my experience. And I would have liked her to present readers with a kind of action plan of what government, business and academia needs to follow when it comes to supporting women as leaders.

It was disappointing that at the end of the book she just says “go on my website to talk more about the issues”. Sandberg’s anecdotes are engaging but I wouldn’t see this book as a bible for success. She started at the top, graduating from Harvard which made her path easier than for many other women who are coming up the hard way.

Trish Morrissey
Communications advisor and strategist

In theory this book should be of interest to anyone – male or female – working in business or government, and especially those aspiring to leadership roles. However, reading through it, the “bull’s eye” target becomes obvious: women who aspire to get to the top or pursue any goal vigorously need to overcome external and internal barriers that may prevent them from achieving that ambition.

Accepting the basic premise that the world would be a much better place if we could harness the collective genius of both genders and have male and female leaders across all aspects of society, every effort should be made to remove obstacles to achieving that goal. Her main advice is to lean in to careers, and scale back when a break is actually needed, or when a child arrives, not before.

The reason is simple – if you do that, you progress to more senior roles before the break; the more senior a role you have when that time comes, the more you will be able to handle it, enabling you to scale back more easily. A lot of women have children later in life and this works well for them on that basis.

Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg is published by WH Allen