Book Summary: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Quick Summary: Lean In uses research to illuminate gender differences, and offers practical advice to help women achieve their goals. A rallying cry for all of us to work together to create a more equal world, the book encourages us to change the conversation from what women can’t do to what they can.

Across the world, viewers responded to Sheryl’s 2010 TEDTalk about the ways women are held back and the ways we hold ourselves back. The overwhelming response prompted Sheryl to write this book. 

Lean In, written with humor and wisdom, is an invigorating call to action and a blueprint for women to reach their full potential.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Lean In Book Summary

Lesson 1: Even though we’ve made a lot of progress, gender equality is far from being achieved.

In the developed world today, women are doing better than ever before. This is largely due to the women’s movement of the last hundred years. But even if at first glance it looks as if the fight against inequality has been won, there’s still much to be done.

Consider pay: In 1970, women in the United States earned 59 cents for every dollar men received for the same work. Although that number has increased, change has been slow: in 2010, it was still only 77 cents. As one activist wittily put it, “Forty years and 18 cents. The price of a dozen eggs has gone up ten times that.” It’s not just a U.S. problem, either. In Europe, the price is only 84 cents, which isn’t much better.

Studies show that women’s performance isn’t only undervalued financially, but also unfairly disparaged. When men and women are asked to rate the performance and growth potential of employees who’re otherwise the same, they prefer men to women.

But doesn’t that only apply to ignoramuses and misogynists? Wouldn’t it be fair if we were all treated equally?

Surprisingly, the same studies show that the fairer an appraiser is to himself, the more likely he’s to favor men over women.

This kind of “benevolent sexism” is much more dangerous than overtly hostile sexism, because the person perpetrating it’s usually unaware of how much their actions are hurting their female counterparts and therefore doesn’t feel compelled to change them.

Inequality still exists at home as well. For example, most people think that it’s the woman’s job to take care of the children. When asked if they thought their partner would stop working to raise children, 46 percent of men surveyed answered yes, but only 5 percent of women.

Lesson 2: The discrepancy in leadership ambitions is one reason why women still do not hold many leadership positions.

The gap between men and women is most pronounced in leadership positions: only 20% of parliamentary seats worldwide are held by women, and only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

These figures are surprising because, on average, women perform better in school than men. In the U.S., women earn 57% of all bachelor’s degrees and 60% of all master’s degrees. But this flood of smart women entering the workforce slows to a trickle when they get to the top.

There are many reasons for this, but the leadership ambition gap is one of the most important. Studies show that men are more likely to aspire to a leadership position and are more ambitious than women. And why?

One reason is that women are not expected to be ambitious and interested in their careers, and when they are, they can be labelled “bossy” or worse. Women can feel pressured to change their career goals because they have been taught these stereotypes from a young age.

Similarly, most men automatically think that they can have both a fulfilling personal life and a successful career, but society and the media keep telling women that at some point they will have to choose between work and family. This often leads women to be less committed to their jobs and more likely to give up work to care for their children. Surveys of Yale and Harvard Business School graduates found that only half of women were still working full-time 20 years after graduation, compared to 90% of men. Given that so many educated women are leaving the workforce, it’s not hard to understand why there is a leadership gap.

Lesson 3: Let’s talk openly about inequality and work together to eliminate it.

We need to be able to talk about gender and women’s issues without coming off as whiners or asking for special treatment.

Open discussion raises awareness of the problem and encourages more people to talk about it. This should lead to more women aspiring to leadership positions and more men wanting to help and support women who aspire to leadership positions.

When people become more aware, they can make small but important changes that help level the playing field for everyone. For example, if a professor notices that women are less likely to speak up when the class is asked a question, he or she can start by addressing students directly. That way, men and women have an equal chance to respond.

Women also need to help each other. That hasn’t always been the case, which is sad. Think about the “queen bee” thing: In the past, in a male-dominated company, only one woman could rise to an executive position. Other women felt threatened by her, so she often made sure they couldn’t move up.

Similarly, stay-at-home mothers can make working mothers feel guilty and insecure about their career choices – and vice versa. This can lead to the two groups criticizing and discouraging each other. For example, the first woman to become an officer on a U.S. Navy submarine said that while the men on her crew respected her, their wives hated her very much.

The fight for gender equality must continue. Not only does it help society as a whole harness the skills and leadership of half the population, but a study of Harvard students has shown that equality makes everyone happier, not just the people who directly benefit.

Lesson 4: Lack of self-confidence can slow down women’s careers.

In addition to the many problems women face in the workplace that come from the outside, they often face a problem that comes from within: self-doubt.

Even the most capable professionals, like the author, can suffer from impostor syndrome, the feeling that their skills and success are fake and will soon be exposed. Women tend to feel the impostor syndrome more than men, and they tend to underestimate their own abilities.

Studies in many fields such as medicine, law and politics show that women tend to think their qualifications and achievements are worse than they actually are, while men tend to think the opposite and are overconfident.

Similarly, men tend to attribute their successes to their innate abilities and blame external factors for their failures. Women, on the other hand, tend to attribute their successes to external factors and blame their failures on their innate abilities.

These misconceptions make women feel even more insecure, and this insecurity can be detrimental to their careers: Talking about yourself in a job interview or grabbing a chair in a board meeting requires self- confidence.

Self-doubt can also cause women to turn down great job opportunities because they think they’re not good enough. But in a rapidly changing world, you can’t wait for the perfect job to pop up. Instead, you need to take charge, seize opportunities and make them work for you. In short, you can’t sit back or stand on the sidelines when it comes to your career.

So what should we do?

Even if you can’t force yourself to be confident, sometimes it helps to pretend you’re. Pretending to be confident can often turn into real confidence.

We should also recognize that women are less likely to feel confident enough to take chances, and we need to change that by encouraging and supporting them.

Lesson 5: Careers are more like jungle gyms than ladders. If you want to get to the top, you should be flexible in how you get there.

The idea of a career ladder doesn’t work anymore. People no longer move in a straight line from the bottom to the top of a company or industry. A better image is a climbing scaffold with more than one way to get to the top.

This idea is comforting to people like the author who don’t know what they want to do after graduation. On a climbing scaffold, you don’t need a specific destination. You can try out the different paths and see which one leads in the right direction.

Plan both short-term and long-term to help you on this journey.

Long-term goals don’t have to be specific or even possible, but they should help you figure out what kind of work interests you. For example, the author wanted to do work that made a difference and let that belief guide her.

You should also judge job opportunities by the most important thing they’ve to offer: the chance to grow. When the author was considering whether to work for Google, then an unknown company, the CEO told her that she should only care about her own growth, which is best in fast-growing companies, “If someone offers you a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.”

He was right, and you too should look for teams, projects and companies that have plenty of room to grow.

In addition to long-term goals, you should also set goals for the next 18 months. These include goals for work and personal goals for learning. Ask, “Where can I get better?”

Lesson 6: Women have to walk a fine line between ambition and popularity.

Even today, gender stereotypes influence how we see other people. Men are expected to be decisive and determined, while women are expected to be caring and social.

When a woman has a successful career, she violates her gender stereotype. Therefore, popularity and a successful career are linked for men, but not for women. Men who are competent and ambitious are praised, but women who do the same are called “pushy” or “not a team player.” This is very unfair, especially since likeability is an important component of a successful career.

However, trying to fit into the gender role expected of a woman can be detrimental to her career because it makes her less ambitious and less likely to pursue career opportunities. This leads to a dynamic of “damned if you do, damned if you do not.”

This is especially evident when you look at how difficult it is for women to negotiate for promotions or higher salaries. Such negotiations are essential to advancing in one’s career, but when a woman stands up for herself, both men and women react dismissively.

Researchers have pointed out some things women should keep in mind when navigating this minefield: try to come across as “appropriately feminine,” meaning nice and friendly. So try to soften your message by speaking for a group rather than for yourself. For example, you might say, “Our department had a great year,” or “Women are generally paid less than men.”

Unfortunately, to overcome gender bias, women must also prove that it is legitimate to negotiate. They can do this by citing compensation benchmarks in the industry or saying that someone higher up, such as a manager, told them to negotiate.

Hopefully, this kind of juggling will no longer be necessary as more women gain power.

Women have to walk a fine line between ambition and popularity.

Lesson 7: To help people communicate well, practice and encourage being genuine and fitting in.

Communication in the workplace must be genuine and honest. It strengthens relationships, makes people question bad decisions, and helps them talk about difficult things. However, many people, especially women, fear that honest communication in the workplace will make them look bad or be too critical. That’s why they stay silent, even though they really would have something to say.

Therefore, managers should do everything they can to encourage their employees to be honest. They can do this by asking for feedback and suggestions, and by publicly thanking those who’ve been honest.

The key to good communication in any situation is to be honest and consider the feelings of others. In other words, be honest, but not brutally honest. But that’s easier said than done.

Don’t think that being appropriate means you’ve to talk around the issue. For example, don’t say, “I trust your analysis, but I’m not sure where the problems might be with your idea,” when what you really mean is, “I don’t like that idea.”

Sometimes humor is a good way to talk about a difficult topic. For example, one Google manager had a hard time starting an honest conversation with a coworker who seemed to be against him until he joked, “Why do you hate me?”

In most situations, there’s no one absolute truth. To communicate well, you must first try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Try saying things like, “I know you’re upset about this because you feel…”.

Also, try starting your statements with “I” instead of “You’re wrong.” The former will help get a conversation going, while the latter will cause you to disagree.

Lesson 8: Attract mentors instead of bothering them, and build a relationship with them that is natural and two-way.

Many young professional women seem almost obsessed with finding a mentor, which is a good thing. Senior executives who help you with your career and use their power on your behalf are important no matter what gender you are.

Women have a much harder time finding these kinds of relationships than men do. One reason is that most of the top business leaders are men, and they don’t feel comfortable mentoring young women because of how it could be misunderstood.

But another reason is that almost every seminar, blog post, and article about career development in the past ten years has told professional women to find a mentor so they can do well, when they should do well so they can find a mentor. Research shows that mentors choose their proteges based on how well they do and how well they might do in the future. So, just asking a stranger, “Will you be my mentor?” probably won’t work.

Putting on a great show is one way to get a potential mentor’s attention, but it’s not the only way.

Every so often, asking a senior executive a specific, well-thought-out question can also lead to a long-term relationship. Even if you only talk or email once in a while, you can build a relationship that is just as helpful as “formal” mentoring. At the end of the day, what matters is not the label but the relationship and the amount of investment.

No matter what you do, keep in mind that mentoring is a two-way street. The mentor also learns useful things and feels good about seeing the mentee grow. Respect your mentor’s time and knowledge. Don’t just meet to “catch up” or to complain.

Lastly, think about how your peers can also be helpful mentors because they often understand your situation better than any executive could.

Lesson 9: Equality also means having a truly equal relationship at home.

In order to have a fulfilling career while raising a family, women need a partner who’s supportive and committed to equality at home. A 2007 study of well-educated women who quit their jobs found that 60% of them did so because of their husbands, particularly because their husbands didn’t help with childcare or other household tasks.

How different are households today? Recent data show that in U.S. households where both parents work full-time, the mother still spends 40% more time caring for children and 30% more time doing housework than the father.

Sometimes the mother is the one who discourages the father from taking care of the child, saying things like, “That’s no way to put on a diaper.” Step back and I’ll show you!” Ultimately, this means that the father does less and less and the mother does most of the work.

For true equality, mothers need to treat fathers as equal partners and divide responsibilities so that both parents can play a role.

Institutional policies also make it difficult for the father to play the same role at home as the mother. In both the U.S. and Europe, maternity leave is typically longer than paternity leave, whether granted by a company or required by law. In addition, men who go against stereotypes and prioritise their families over their careers are penalised more than women in terms of salary and promotion.

Equality at home is important not only for women who want to work outside the home, but also for happier relationships and setting a good example for children. So it’s always worth fighting against an unfair status quo at home, even if it causes problems in the short term.

Lesson 10: Before you go on maternity leave, try as hard as you can to do your job.

Girls are taught from an early age that one day they will have to choose between a successful career and good motherhood.

This image is not only wrong and discouraging, but also harms women’s careers because they try to find what they think is an impossible balance between work and family.

Imagine a young female lawyer who wants to get ahead and is offered a very important new job. Since she wants to start a family in “a few” years, she wonders if she is really up to this new responsibility. After all, her children will need her attention too. After thinking about it, she decides not to take the risk.

Such decisions result in the mother’s career being in a very different situation after the child is born than if she had taken advantage of all the opportunities she had. Perhaps she will not become a rising star, but her career will remain the same.

That is, if she has to choose between her job and taking care of her children, her job is not as rewarding as it could have been. And when she returns from maternity leave, she may find the job so boring that she decides to quit for good. So the steps she took to balance her work and family life were exactly what ended her career.

In the years and months before you become a mother, it’s important to stay involved as much as possible. Do not slow down your work unless you absolutely have to.

Lesson 11: Don’t try to make everything perfect; instead, pay attention to what’s really important.

One of the most dangerous traps set for women is the idea that they can “have it all.” Life is about compromise, so no one can have it all. No one can do everything well both at home and at work.

People who work in jobs with a lot of stress often do everything the company asks of them and then quit out of boredom. That doesn’t make sense.

Instead, set boundaries and try to get the job done the way you want it done. Companies and leaders should move toward a culture that focuses less on personal attendance and more on results, rather than time spent at work.

There’s also pressure at home, as mothers are expected to spend more and more time with their children. This relatively new trend toward intensive motherhood can cause working mothers to feel guilty, even though research shows that being cared for by someone else while you work doesn’t harm the child’s development in any way.

Managing guilt well can be just as important for mothers as managing their time well. As a general rule, don’t think about what you’re not doing. Instead, focus on the task at hand and do it well.

Since no one can do everything, make a list of the most important tasks and stick to it. For example, make time for your daughter’s dance recital, but don’t worry about folding the sheets perfectly. Don’t try to be perfect. Instead, try to find solutions at home and at work that will work in the long run and make you happy in the moment.

There’s no “perfect” path to a successful career and a fulfilling personal life, so find the way that works best for you.


Advice for women who want to reach the top jobs in business from Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, including:

  • Don’t let your fear hold you back.
  • Recognise your self-worth and feel you deserve your role.
  • Don’t try to be liked – strive to be good at what you do.
  • Accept changing roles at work and adapt.
  • Seek out support, but not in an obvious way.
  • Be truthful with yourself and others: professional and personal need not be separate.
  • Don’t put future personal goals before your career opportunities.
  • Aim for fifty/fifty parenting.
  • You can’t ‘do it all’ but you can do most of it well enough.
  • Aim for true equality in the workplace and begin by talking about it.

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Lean In Quotes

“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”


“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”


“Women need to shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that- and I’ll learn by doing it.”

Read our larger collection of the best Lean In quotes. 

About The Author

Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook, overseeing the firm’s business operations. Prior to Facebook, Sheryl was vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, chief of staff for the United States Treasury Department under President Clinton, a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, and an economist with the World Bank. Sheryl received a BA summa cum laude from Harvard University and an MBA with the highest distinction from Harvard Business School.

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