For its legions of readers and circle attendees, “Lean In” has been a powerful mentor, one that has helped shape the arc of their careers.
When Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” — a 228-page manifesto on what women need to do to triumph in the male-dominated workplace — was published five years ago this month, it became a cultural phenomenon.
It rode the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year, sold 4.2 million copies worldwide (and still sells roughly 12,500 copies a month, in all formats), landed Sandberg on the covers of Time and Fortune and on TV shows like “60 Minutes” and “Nightline,” and led to the creation of hundreds of “Lean In” circles, groups of women who meet on a regular basis to discuss and debate the principles of Sandberg’s book. Circles, said Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org, “are one of the few places in the world where women can be overtly, unapologetically ambitious.”
For its legions of readers and circle attendees, “Lean In” has been a powerful mentor, one that has helped shape the arc of their careers. Senior executives, both male and female, say they have noticed a shift in attitude in recent years, particularly among their younger employees.
“Five or six years ago, younger job candidates would accept the first offer given to them,” said Eliot Kaplan, a former vice president of talent acquisition at Hearst Publishing and now a career coach. “Since then, 90 percent want to negotiate — usually money but also vacation time, responsibilities and so forth. Some would actually say, ‘Sheryl Sandberg says I have to.’”
Others have dismissed “Lean In” as overly naive in its assumptions and advice, and a flawed manifesto that ignored realities like family and aging parents (the responsibilities for which still largely fall on female shoulders).
“I can’t speak for all corporate women, but I thought it was written by someone who’s never suffered financially or endured true fear about her job or finances,” said Jillian Medoff, a management consultant and novelist whose latest work, “This Could Hurt,” is about the drama of corporate culture. “Secretaries, middle managers, assistants and people who are up against the wall can’t lean in, particularly if they’ve had some of the managers I’ve had in the past. There is real fear when it comes to money and speaking up.”
How to measure, five years later, the impact of “Lean In” on the millions of women who read it (and one who wrote it), and the workplace culture they tried to navigate? The New York Times talked to a range of women — from a Navy commander to Sen. Amy Klobuchar to a recent college graduate working for an NGO — about the book’s legacy.
These interviews have been edited for space and clarity.
Sheryl Sandberg, 48
Chief operating officer of Facebook, author (with Nell Scovell) of “Lean In” and founder of LeanIn.org
Celebrate the five-year anniversary? (Laughs.) No, that never even occurred to me. What I’ve always wanted is equality — equal pay, equal responsibility at home. Five years is not very much time for that to happen. Sometimes these things take a long time, but I remain hopeful and optimistic. And there are lots of reasons. There are more women running for public office in 2018 than ever before. And #MeToo has helped take steps toward true and real equality.
There are also some things I’m incredibly worried about. I’ve written a lot about informational access. We did a survey in Survey Monkey (a polling company where Sandberg’s late husband, Dave Goldberg, was once chief executive). Today, senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate to have a work dinner with a junior-level woman than with a junior-level man — and five times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior-level woman. Women deserve the same access and mentorship as men have, and I think that’s a big concern. There’s still so much to do.
Emily Bassett, 40
Nuclear engineer and commanding officer of the Manchester, a Navy ship
When I look back on the past five years, I realize the “Lean In” movement defined my professional life. I attribute much of my confidence to what I learned there. Five years ago, I was a student coming off shore duty. I had a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. I was then made the second in command to the commanding officer on a different warship, in charge of 440 sailors. My husband and I were juggling two careers with kids. I was hungry for connection and professional development, but the question was: How am I going to be a leader?
A friend recommended I read “Lean In.” Do you know what an inflection point is? It’s that point on a curve where the sign of the curvature — the concavity — changes. The precise turning point. And that’s what “Lean In” was for me. I went to the LeanIn.org website, and there was this gold mine of information on everything to do with leading: giving feedback, negotiations, managing your body language, everything. I had had a couple of professional failures, and one thing “Lean In” made me realize is that you are never alone with your leadership issues. We can get lost in our own head space sometimes. But you learn that there is always someone else having the same issue.
I’ve co-founded four “Lean In” circles for military personnel — two of which are coed — and they’re fantastic. Mine is not on the ship, because I wanted the freedom to go beyond the chain of command. People come and go, but the beauty of these circles is that you have something to anchor you. It’s not a cookie-decorating contest. It’s not group therapy. It’s professional development.
Alix Lawson, 27
Senior program associate for Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization in Washington
My mother got me a copy right after I got out of grad school (Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service) in 2016, and I wasn’t going to read it. I thought it would be wishy-washy, preachy and individualized, and my reaction would be, ‘Oh, great, your life turned out amazing, but I don’t know what to do with this information.’ And I thought Sandberg would rehash the common narrative. She didn’t. What I really enjoyed was the way she presented women without taking on this victim role. It was a lesson in being a strong woman, getting things done, without sacrificing your professionalism.
What I walked away with was a strategy for living your life, including your personal life. For example — and I was just arguing about this with my grandmother, who says, “A real man always pays” — I feel more comfortable splitting the tab when I’m on a date. I always feel something is owed when someone pays, and I don’t like that feeling. I like Sandberg’s ideas about full sharing. It just jibes with the way I feel. Basically she’s saying, “Don’t let the history of gender define what happens in the future, and don’t let it define your future.”
Also, she talks a lot about how being ambitious and bossy have negative connotations for women historically. Well, she makes it more than just OK to be ambitious. Right now I’m a program associate, working really hard to get that promotion. Where I see myself in 10 years is not just being a program manager. I should be running my own NGO.
Anna Dapelo-Garcia, 55
Administrative director for patient access and financial clearance services at Stanford Health Care
People ask why I started Lean In Latinas. Well, I grew up in East San Jose in an environment where people were living on welfare checks. There were drugs, gangs, guns and a lot of dysfunction in my own family. I never heard the word “college” come out of my parents’ mouth; I didn’t know anyone who went. I was lost. I dropped out of high school when I was 17. But I got a job in health care. I was smart, I had hustle, and I had mentors at work, and it wasn’t too many years before I had people with college degrees and master’s reporting to me.
I wanted to go back to college, though, and got to Stanford in my late 20s (and later, I went for my master’s). I knew I was smart, but it was so uncomfortable. One of the issues with Latino culture is that at work, people don’t question authority; you don’t make waves. I was often the only brown girl in the room, and I’d be thinking: What is wrong with me? Why are the Caucasian girls fine with speaking up?
Over time, I became more comfortable, of course. I graduated, went on to get a master’s degree and became one of the most decorated people in my field. About 2 1/2 years ago, I read “Lean In” when a friend recommended it. It was very exciting to me, its ideas about leadership, and when I went to the website, I saw the possibility of starting a circle. And when I turned 50, I did a self-assessment. I had checked a bunch of “success” boxes, but I hadn’t checked the “giving back” box. I needed a sense of success in that way, too. I had the intention of helping others, but I didn’t know how. “Lean In” provided me that platform.
Amy Klobuchar, 57
U.S. senator from Minnesota
Here’s some perspective. Ten years ago, there were 16 women in the Senate — and they were calling them the “sweet 16.” Now there are 22. This doesn’t sound like a lot, and it’s not — but that number is almost half the number of women who’ve been in the Senate in the entire history of our country. So that’s a dramatic change.
This is even more telling to me: The number of women in leadership positions — either chairs or ranking members — has dramatically increased. In the last five years, we’ve seen them lead the Budget Committee, the Agricultural Committee, the Appropriations Committee, the Health Committee, the Environmental Committee, Appropriations and the Health Committee. (I’m the ranking member on the Rules Committee.) With attrition, as men left or were defeated, that’s been a major shift.
Plus, we’re making certain changes on Senate rules. For example, with Tammy Duckworth having her second child at 50, we’re changing some rules so that in case there’s a late-night vote, she can bring her baby. Children will be allowed on the House floor. Then we passed a sexual harassment policy, so every member of the Senate and the staff has to go through training, and we’ve changed the rules so it’s easier to report instances of sexual harassment. And the House has just passed something that if a member is charged with harassment, he has to personally pay. So you can see, the #MeToo movement and “Lean In” are both making real, substantive change. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the “Lean In” movement. It’s not just about getting there. It’s about having real impact while you’re there.
Sunny Bates, 62
Chief executive officer of Sunny Bates Associates, a management consulting firm
A little more than five years ago, I was getting together a “woman and leadership” learning group, and Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg, said to me, “Sunny, this is really important, but I don’t have the bandwidth right now.” This is one of the big changes of the “Lean In” movement: I think there’s more bandwidth. (A spokesman for Bloomberg said that Grauer — who, in 2014, founded the U.S. chapter of the 30% Club, an organization that has set a goal of 30 percent female directors on S&P 100 boards by 2020 — said he doesn’t recall that specific conversation with Bates.)
Here are the crucial things I think Sheryl Sandberg did. First, she made women question not just what’s wrong with the corporate structure, but ask themselves, “How are you holding yourself back?” Because structural change in the work environment is critical — but nothing makes a difference if you’re holding yourself back. Many people said, “Oh, she was telling women to blame themselves,” but that’s not it at all. (And the onus isn’t only on women; she talks about men leaning in, too.)
What’s powerful about Sheryl’s writing is that she’s honest. It’s easy to dump on her because of her privilege. But she is self-effacing and self-questioning; she was always asking herself, whenever there was a problem, “What’s my role in this?” And that’s what she gave us, too: She put language to some workplace issues we all know exist but don’t always know how to talk about. The idea of “leaning in” is extremely useful.
For example, when we’re feeling excluded at work, when someone isn’t including us in a discussion or a project, we’re all so uncomfortable. That’s when we want to lean back and just ignore it. And that’s exactly the time to lean in.
Sheryl makes it very clear how we all grow through discomfort. Think about this as a parent. When I had fights with my one of my daughters when she was younger, my thoughts would drift toward sending her to boarding school. If we both went into our rooms and shut the door, nothing happened. It’s when I leaned into the conflict and forced more discussion, painful as it was, that’s when things got resolved.
And you know where she was really right, even if this part of the movement got her a lot of flak? Choosing your partner, insisting on that person being supportive and participating in the home 50 percent of the time. She was so deliberate about this part of her life. And lots of people took her to task for this, because we aren’t comfortable thinking so strategically about love and romance. The truth is, when a marriage is bad, work is a great refuge. I have to admit, I put my husband at the center of everything, and it was a very bad marriage, and my career took off when I got divorced.
It’s interesting. What satisfies me at my age — some board representation, some women in the C suite or on the management team — does not feel like enough to my millennial daughters. We were talking about this recently, and they were like, “Are you kidding me?” Representation should be at least 50 percent, they say. And they’re not wrong.
Lola Bates-Campbell, 30
Associate creative director at Frog Design (and a daughter of Sunny Bates)
Five years ago, when “Lean In” just came out, I was a very junior person at Frog Design. I never read the book. But I remember vividly when it came out, because it catalyzed a series of initiatives at the company to look at women in positions of leadership and compensation. The company’s COO and president were women. I remember the first meeting we had — I was so junior that I wasn’t sitting at the table, but sort of on a chair in the corner — and the conclusion was that because there were women in the C suite, the company didn’t have any systemic issues, even though there were very few women in middle management. Essentially the message to us, that I thought was the “Lean In” message, was: You have to do more. And people left that meeting kind of crestfallen. So, it’s all up to us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps? OK, then! But it felt out of touch.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the next three years, the company continued to look at the issue, brought in an outside consultant that allowed us to address gender and diversity issues — and ultimately there was real change. Five years later, I’m one of those women in middle management now, and one of the reasons is the “Lean In” movement. Even for those who didn’t read it and make it a part of their lives in a conscious way, it had an effect.
One example: I just got engaged. The whole conversation Sandberg put forth about having an equal partner is more, well, sort of part of so many people’s DNA now. My partner and I, one of the reasons we believe that we’re so well suited for each other is that we are passionate about our own work and support each other in our interest and time and energy spent on it. It was incredibly important for me to find someone who respected the career I wanted to have. In fact, he talks about being a stay-at-home dad. On one of our first few dates, I had told him I was going to take over the world. He likes to remind me of that.
Alan Sclar, 51
Partner and founder of Sclar Law Group
I’ve been hiring people for about 25 years, and there used to be a lot of apprehension around issues relating to kids — leave after having a child, a flexible workweek and so forth. That’s really changed in the past five years. They are leaning in, in the sense that they are not leaving the workforce altogether, and as an employer, I’m trying to lean in, too. I have one young attorney who spends two days at home, and they are dedicated workdays. I have an office manager who had a baby and wanted to spend a lot more time at home, and much of what she does can be done remotely.
Sometimes — whether it’s because they have paid help or partners — they are actually able to focus more at home. When I hire, I look for value, and I’ve noticed that when some workers ask for and receive a mixed workplace, they are happy and I’m happy, and I’m getting that value.
Peggy Northrop, 62
Former magazine editor (Sunset, Reader’s Digest, More) and now an industry consultant
I could always tell when the young editors on my staff had read the book — more than one said, “I know I’m supposed to ‘Lean In,’ so. …” That was the “take a deep breath” phrase before opening a frank discussion. My ability to give raises was limited: Almost always I would have a pool of, say, 2.5 percent that I could divvy up until the money was gone. So giving to person Y meant going light on person X.
But often the discussion, if well timed, would sway me by a percentage point if the person had reminded me what they had achieved and made it clear they were up for more challenges. I actually loved it when staffers wanted to talk about their career paths — and sometimes I would even say: “Go get some experience. You will be more valuable when you come back.” To me, the “Lean In” conversation was a marker of a young woman who was taking herself and her career seriously.
I always found it odd that women were so fearful about these money conversations — not that this is how raises necessarily work, but you do need to learn to ask. So on balance I think Sandberg’s book made a dent in helping women see what might be in their control.