Two new books on women and leadership

Posted in: Bloggery

Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, the current Facebook CEO and former Google executive explores in her book Lean In- Women, Work and the Will to Lead why women’s progress towards leadership positions in government and industry has stalled. Despite women having more opportunities today than ever before, she reminds us that “men still run the world… women’s voices are not heard equally” and that equality of the sexes is still a long way off.  She discusses the many gender biases that hold women back from fulfilling their career potential. She argues that there are both institutional barriers that prevent women succeeding plus internal barriers around choices women make that hold women back.

Notwithstanding the barriers that exist for women, she argues women can succeed professionally by taking charge of their careers and their lives. Sandberg offers solutions around empowering women – urging women to be ambitious, have confidence and assert themselves, develop powerful relationships in their professional world and seek a personal relationship with a truly supportive life partner.

Critics say she lets institutions off the hook by focusing on the internal barriers women place on themselves. They accuse her of operating from a position of financial privilege and that her experience does not resonate with the vast majority of women who are not financially empowered and struggle to survive.

On the other hand, Sandberg supporters contend that her conclusions are sound and make sense. They are based not just on her experience and those of other successful women leaders, but also on a substantial body of scholarly research and literature. They can recognise the experiences she describes around sexism and discrimination at work. They find the book is full of good advice and insightful lessons.

One thing is certain, this book has sparked much heated debate and discussion across the gender divide and raises the issues of women and careers in discussions around the water cooler at work, the dining table at home and maybe even in some boardrooms in the corporate world.

Sideways to the Top – 10 Stories of Successful Women That Will Change Your Thinking About Career Success Forever, by Norah Breekveldt 

Like the book or loathe it, it is interesting to contrast Sandberg’s advice with the findings of Macfarlan Lane’s latest research, published in Sideways to the Top – 10 Stories of Successful Women That Will Change Your Thinking About Career Success Forever. The book, written by Norah Breekveldt, describes the experiences of some of Australia and New Zealand’s leading women including the issues, questions and factors they grappled with in getting to the top of their profession.

In a nutshell, the women in Sideways To The Top had the self-confidence and courage to take charge of their careers. They chose organisations and leaders that provided them with opportunities for career development and were not afraid to move on to another employer or start their own business when their careers were stalling.

Sideways To The Top identified seven success factors for women similar to those described in Lean In:

  1. Sandberg talks about the jungle gym of work – describing the process of swinging around between roles, rather than walking up a ladder to the top. Sideways To The Top describes a similar strategy where women have rejected a purely linear career ladder approach to success and chosen sideways moves in careers to develop breadth of business acumen and depth of leadership skills, which in turn provided the foundation for future upward moves.
  2. Like Sandberg, the women whose stories were explored in our new book had very supportive parents and were brought up in a home environment where there were no gender barriers to pursuing whatever they wanted.
  3. They all worked extremely hard. None of the women profiled expected or attained work/life balance when developing their careers; several described it as an unhelpful myth or unattainable expectation placed on women by society.
  4. They managed work/life issues through supportive partners and family members who shared the responsibilities around the home and family.
  5. Like Sandberg, our exemplars were vigilant about identifying opportunities and seized them with both hands when they arrived.
  6. They did not rely on participating in formal mentoring programs offered by employers.  However most did seek out mentors taking  the initiative themselves to identify individuals who could be influential in their careers and developing strong professional relationships with them.
  7. They all recognised the value of developing strong professional networks and utilised these networks when considering career moves and making important career choices.

Enabling women to succeed seems to be a continual challenge in Australia and overseas. Although women graduates have outnumbered men since the 1980s, a scant 6% of line management positions are held by women and less than 4% of Board directorships are held by women[1]

Books such as Lean In and Sideways To The Top are important contributions to the ongoing debate we all need to have about the social and economic benefits of greater gender diversity.


[1]Equal Employment for Women in the Workplace Agency (2012) Australian Census for Women in Leadership