Leaning into Life: Why It’s Imperative for College Students to Read ‘Lean In’

Sent an email to Sheryl praising her book and she sent me a signed copy of Lean In. It’s amazing what can happen when you reach out to someone, it’s often reciprocated with kindness and generosity.

Before reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead I often felt like I was struggling through many of my insecurities alone. As a 19 year old woman beginning to navigate her way through college, boys and possible career paths it’s easy to get lost in my own thoughts and decisions, but Sandberg points out that these are issues that we face as a community of women, not just as individuals. She backs up her personal experiences with data and reasoning and teaches us, women, how to start helping ourselves. Her book is relevant to everyone, from millennials to mothers, Sandberg puts words to the feelings that women have long struggled to articulate.

Sandberg argues that women quietly start checking out of their careers years before they actually start a family. This point resonated with me personally. When I was a child, my dream was to become a doctor. At the time it was because I loved the perks of free stickers, but after my sister’s battle with viral encephalitis, I was inspired to help others so they wouldn’t have to struggle the same way my family did that summer. When it came time to apply for colleges I looked into many schools with strong pre-med tracks, but stopped when I realized that I’d be in school until my late twenties. I figured that if I were to graduate when I was 26, I’d only be able to practice for a few years before I’d need to settle down to have a family.

I didn’t realize what I was doing until I saw Sandberg’s commencement speech at Barnard College in 2011 and heard her say,

“Do not leave before you leave… Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”

I was compromising my career for my children before I even had any, and Sandberg made me realize that I’m not alone. She argues that gender inequality exists for two reasons: societal barriers and ourselves. Sandberg states,

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve” (Lean In, 8).

To change gender expectations we need to start fighting against them ourselves, but it’s difficult because women often perpetuate their role in society subconsciously. We think we need to be liked by everyone because that is what has always been expected of us, and we think we aren’t good at math because of irrelevant stereotypes. Neither are true. In fact, in a recent study conducted in 30 different nations with over one million students, girls earned higher grades in every subject, including the science-related fields where boys are thought to surpass girls.

Additionally, data from the Pew Research Center shows that in 2012, 71 percent of female high school graduates went on to college, compared to 61 percent of their male counterparts.

Data is on our side, yet a disheartening fact remains: men still run the world. Only 5 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women. In the U.S, women only hold 25 percent of senior executive positions and 19 percent of board seats. Compensation has equally grim statistics, Women still only earn 77 cents for every dollar that men make.

These statistics raise an interesting question: what happens between childhood and adulthood that makes women stop reaching for top positions and start leaning back?

Sandberg argues that it begins when women start compromising their careers because they fear that their life will lack balance if they don’t. She states that women try to find balance for responsibilities they don’t have yet. We don’t take the promotions or the difficult career paths because we fear that one day it’ll become too much. This is where the problems lies: we destroy opportunities before they even come about and in turn these statistics continue to be true.

Lean In is more than a self-help book or a feminist manifesto. Sandberg approaches the issue of gender inequality by putting women in the driver’s seat. The emphasis of her book is not about how men or society should change, but about how we, women, need to confront our subconscious actions and start acting against them. Sandberg pushes us to lean in to our careers even when we feel inclined to lean back. We can not hope that we will achieve equality in the future if we don’t start making moves now. We need to pursue our careers and chase our dreams so that our daughters know that they can do the same. And when they do, that’s when true equality has been achieved.