Should Women 'Lean In' More in the Workplace?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is catching a lot of grief for her new book, “Lean In,” and for her public appearances suggesting that women need to be more aggressive in the workplace. Her recent interview on “60 Minutes” seemed to raise the level of criticism to historic heights.

After all, how can a woman like Sandberg--who is rich, successful, married, a mother, cute as a button and well spoken--dare to tell mere mortal women how they should deal with their struggles in the world of work? She has always had it so easy, some critics suggest, that she can’t possibly understand the problems and tradeoffs that others face every day. How can she expect women to put their jobs and peace of mind at risk by demanding more from those blankety-blank men who run their organizations?

It’s true that Sandberg has a privileged life. But despite that background, what she has to say has some merit.

I’m probably the wrong person to be writing this blog. My gender is responsible for much of what’s wrong with U.S. workplaces. The record of hiring and promoting women to senior executive and board positions in the U.S. speaks for itself. I am appalled at the wage gap between men and women doing equivalent work.

Many men treat women unfairly intentionally. Others do so through ignorance or groupthink. Yet, in addition, many women hold themselves back for some very subtle and complex reasons, says Sandberg. They play it safe, not wanting to seem too aggressive. They want to be liked. They fail to apply for, or turn down, work opportunities because they might have children at some point. They wind up fulfilling stereotypes they don’t want to fulfill.
Sandberg says that the women’s revolution has stalled. Of course, that might be seen as good news to some women. To others, that might be a worrisome development. To those women who want to re-ignite the revolution, or just to advance it a step at a time in the workplace, knowing how to begin can seem daunting.

The more deeply ingrained a bad system is, the more important it is for people to recognize it for what it is and to speak up against it. That’s the message I am getting from Sheryl Sandberg. And you know what? That’s not a message that pertains just to women versus men. That message applies to any situation of inequality.

So all of us—women, men, gays, straights, managers, HR professionals, Gen Xers, Millennials, janitors, call center heroes—all of us can “lean in” more deliberately. We all can participate more, can contribute more, can lead more, from time to time. We all need to challenge ourselves, to push ourselves. That’s how careers improve. That’s how lives improve.

That’s how women improve. And men, too. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Steve Bates is a freelance journalist. He is a former writer for HR Magazine and editor for SHRM Online. His website is

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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