This article was originally written for LeanIn Netherlands.

I first read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in 2014. The book has so much valuable insights about career women, women in leadership and moms with careers that it remains valuable to me to this day. As the cliche’ goes, it is “more relevant than ever.” When women ask me which book about leadership they should read, I always suggest this book.

The impact of the book goes beyond cultural borders, educational attainment and marital status. The writing is strong and resonates, the research impeccable. I heard myself saying, “I wish I could write a book like this one.”

In her TED Talk of 2010, Sandberg summarized the three important lessons from the book, namely: ‘sit at the table’, ‘don’t leave before you leave’ and ‘make your partner a real partner’.

These three lessons are so powerful that Lean In has since nurtured a global community of women who support each other and cheer each other on, whether they choose to stay in the workforce or not.

While I took these three lessons to heart, I remember another three, which are:

Heidi and Howard are one and the same

Lean In features outstanding research. One of the most memorable may just be the Howard vs. Heidi case study. It is a case study about an entrepreneur and Harvard students were supposed to find out what made him/her successful. Students were handed out the same case study with only the names changed, one with Heidi and one with Howard. When asked to assess the entrepreneur’s personality, both groups found Heidi and Howard competent with Howard being more likable. Heidi was found to be more out for herself and ‘not the type of person one would hire or work for.’

The results of the handling of this case study proved the existence of gender bias.

In her book, Sandberg pointed out, “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. This truth is both shocking and unsurprising: shocking because no one would ever admit to stereotyping on the basis of gender and unsurprising because clearly we do.”

This pertains to the likeability bias that women most often have to endure in the workplace. We are expected to be nicer than men but when nice, we can be tagged as ‘too nice’ and ‘not professional enough’. We are not expected to be ambitious so when we take it a notch down, we are called ‘too modest’.

Joan Williams, co-author of What Works for Women at Work, have some practical tips on how to navigate this likability trap.

Careers are more like jungle gyms

We are in a society where career improvement means moving up. Career moms often get asked, “how do you do it all?” Sandberg, in her book, described careers more like jungle gyms and not a straight corporate ladder. With jungle gyms, Sandberg wrote, there are more paths to the top and these paths can be more inclusive of women in all levels in their careers.

“The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment. Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above,” she wrote.

She further suggested to take jobs in growing fields with advancement and learning opportunities. If 85% of jobs in 2030 have not been invented yet, it is probably time to rethink and recreate career paths.

Always be learning

COVID-19 has encouraged us all to change, very quickly. A lot of people have been furloughed but there are also many opportunities opening up. With change being the only constant, Sandberg emphasizes learning as an important skill.

“It’s your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters. One of the things I tell people these days is that there is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have,” she wrote.

In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck backs this learning ability and refers to it as growth mindset, an important key to success. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” she explains.

Take action

Taking these learnings to heart, you can choose one of these micro-actions:

  • Check out Lean In’s “50 ways to fight bias” program and educate yourself about biases.
  • Broaden your perspective when it comes to your career path and stop focusing on someone’s butt!
  • Found a job you like? Instead of focusing on ticking all the boxes, look at the ones you don’t tick as areas for growth. Take charge of your own learning.

Whatever you do as a woman today, whether you are a stay-at-home mom (although yes, we are all staying at home now!), a mid-level manager or an entrepreneur, this book is for you. Get your copy, learn from the research and take your own lessons to heart. And if you don’t get a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair!

Resources

  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
  • McGinn, Kathleen L., and Nicole Tempest. Heidi Roizen. Harvard Business School Case 800-228, January 2000. (Revised April 2010.)
  • Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Sandberg, S. (2010). Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders. TED Women 2010
  • Tencer, D. (2017). 85% of Jobs that Will Exist in 2030 Have Not Been Invented Yet. Huffington Post
  • Williams, C. (2019). How Women Can Escape the Likability Trap. New York Times Opinion.