Developer Book club: Lean In

20/12/2017 developerBookClub books leanIn

As mentioned in my recent blog post, I have decided to: #1: read more #2: blog about it! So here we go with the first book: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

As a woman working in technology, this probably seems like an obvious choice, but it’s actually a book I have avoided reading til now. To be honest I thought there would be no point, what can Sheryl tell me about the problems in tech that I haven’t already noticed myself and I had the attitude of trying not to focus on the negatives. However, a friend told me it was a good read and I might get some insights from it… I now realise why. Sheryl wasn’t just acknowledging the problems, she wasn’t blaming it on a pipeline problem, she was giving real life advice on what *we* can do to help ourselves. As opposed to the typical complain about the problem, but not try and fix it.


Straight away when reading this book I got out my wee post it notes, I wanted to mark so many parts of it for future Carole to refer back to. Here are some main points from chapters I liked.

Ch 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?

Straight away in this first chapter, I found myself agreeing with a lot of her points.

Sheryl discussed her upbringing and how from a young age we treat boys and girls differently. This is something I have thought about a lot… even since I was a wee girl, when I wasn’t allowed to play football with the boys in school. Luckily, I was brought up in a family of strong women who were opinionated and get sh*t done! I didn’t really realise there was such a gender gap in the “real world” until I went to uni and into the workplace that I started really experiencing people’s bias. Maybe this is why I am so vocal about it, I am still in disbelief that this is how the world works!

We are brought up thinking there are traits girls should have a different traits boys should have. This translates to how we see ourselves and others as grown ups. For example, how ambition and assertiveness are seen in the workplace: a woman is far more likely to be seen as “bossy” (as a negative) when she is leading than a man. I even find myself being apologetic when trying to ask someone to complete a task or for an update on something. The fear of not being liked mentioned in this chapter is totally something I worry about. This is also discussed at length in  chapter 3: “success and likeability”

The message of “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” that Sheryl references is resonates with me. In the last few years I have been trying to take the “Do things that scare you, what’s the worst that could happen” approach and this for sure is something I would recommend to anyone.


Ch 2: Sit at the Table

Arguably the most famous reference to this book and the Lean In movement, this chapter starts off with an anecdote of a scenario where in an important meeting the men all took the seats at the main boardroom table and the women took seats around the edge of the room, not even sitting at the table with everyone else. This is a literal example of something we metaphorically do all the time, we distance ourselves from the conversation, sitting around in the sidelines. Do we not feel like we belong there? Do we feel like our voice is not welcome? This chapter talks about self doubt, imposter syndrome and confidence… If you could have written a go to chapter for me, this was it and I think it should be mandatory reading for female graduates heading out to the real world.

I also think it’s important for management to understand this tendency for women to exclude themselves (and be excluded) from conversations. It’s their job to make sure the right people have their place at the table.

Ch 8: Make your Partner a real Partner

This chapter was a bit heartbreaking, now knowing that Sheryl’s partner has since passed away. Hearing how he supported her and they worked together to ensure they could both enjoy careers they wanted was lovely and I am so thankful that I have Mr L: always there to tell me to put myself forward when I am self doubting, always there to say “f*** it, ignore them” when I experience negativity, acting enthusiastic when I show him a new API I am playing with (even though I know it’s not interesting to anyone else!) and just generally being my best friend.

Ch 10: Let's Start Talking about it

This chapter starts by asking what if we weren’t constantly labelled by our gender? I know I am referred to as a “female developer” rather than just a “developer” or when I am speaking at an event “the female speaker”. It might sound silly to be annoyed by this, but think about it… do we refer to our male teammates as “male devs”? No, because male is the default, apparently.




Discussing what it means to be feminist, Sheryl mentions how she used to reject the term refusing to think of herself as a feminist. Instead, she thought if she works hard and acts like “one of the guys” she would get equality… I relate to this, I used to try to be one of the team, playing down my more feminine traits and never speaking out. In this chapter, she mentions that working with other women on speaking out, realising they have experiences in common and encouraging them to share their knowledge. Although at the moment, I don’t work with any other women in development, I have found a group of female friends, role models or just people I have found to follow on Twitter that share their experiences and quietly encourage each other. I am so grateful for this… to any of you reading, you know who you are.

This chapter also discusses how important it is for men to talk about gender issues in industry, but also acknowledges how hard this is for men. From my experience, of being in the minority in a team, when you have someone who is part of the majority defend you, or even quietly acknowledge that they too have noticed the issue, it is so appreciated. I am forever grateful to these men who have supported me by calling out the offenders, mentoring me or even just making a point of ensuring I am listened too. Again, if you are reading, thank you.

So to everyone, let’s not be afraid of the “feminist” word: If you would describe yourself as “A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”, then proudly describe yourself using the F word and start talking about it.

Ch 11: Working Together Toward Equality

I liked the message here, let’s not judge each other and make it even harder for other women. We get enough scrutiny from everywhere else! Let’s not judge the stay at home mum vs the 50 hour working week mum. Let’s not give the women who is focussing on career rather than having kids just yet (...I relate to this one) a hard time. Let’s be supportive of everyone we work with, men and women, from different lifestyles and work together to make a difference.

There are other chapters that I don’t necessarily relate to at the moment since I don’t have children, I am not in a management position and have not had a lot of career moves. However, it was good to hear the author’s personal experiences as well as anecdotes from other people.

I know there have been some criticism of the “Lean In” movement and the implication that it’s all down to women’s lack of confidence and we can influence our own careers by being proactive, forcing our way to the table. You know what, sometimes when we make the space at the table, we are pushed away from it! However, I do feel like the intentions of the book are good and as a minority in the industry, I liked hearing someone like me discussing things I too have struggled with and giving me advice on what I can do to try and make a change.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book to anyone in tech. Yes, specifically women. But also men, particularly those in management who need to understand how bias and exclusion can affect the people in their team. Even if just something as simple as making sure we/ the people in our team get their place at the table.