It’s nearly 10 years since the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s groundbreaking book, Lean In, in which the Google alumni argued women should stop trying to be liked and start being more assertive to stake their claim at the boardroom table — or anywhere.
Lean In sold 4 million copies in five years, quickly growing into a movement, and Sandberg established the Lean In Foundation (now known as LeanIn.org) which offered leadership-hungry women even more resources and programming to get ahead faster.
But not everyone was convinced. Sandberg’s ethos to ruthlessly market oneself in the workplace attracted criticism for encouraging women to try harder, instead of dealing with the systemic issues that disadvantage women, like the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, and fallout from child-rearing career breaks.
Michelle Obama was among the detractors of the Sandberg ethos.
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“I tell women that whole ‘you can have it all’ — mmm, nope, not at the same time, that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in because that s*** doesn’t work,” the former first lady said in 2018.
Sandberg penned Lean In in 2007, just three years after joining Facebook — now Meta — as chief operating officer, but this week, one of America’s most powerful businesswomen called time at the social media giant, saying she was ready for a new chapter.
So is her groundbreaking manifesto the key to women finding success? With Verve founder and director Louise Gibson says it’s much more complicated than that.
‘Business plays a huge role’
“Sure, female leaders can continue to ‘lean in’ but the dire progress in elevating women to leadership positions in business, government and community worldwide tells us another very important piece of the equation is still lacking,” the consulting and coaching expert says.
“What female leaders need is for this not to be dealt with as a female leadership problem. It needs to be reframed as a societal imperative in which businesses play a huge role.”
Women currently make up about 34.6% of the directors at Australia’s 200 largest firms, according to Bloomberg. It’s up from 32.4% at the end of 2020, but it’s a long way from gender parity.
This week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese set a record for the most-ever female representation in Cabinet, with 10 of the 23 portfolios held by women, some 43%. It’s an improvement from seven in the Morrison ministry, but still short of 50/50.
Odette & Co founder and director Odette Barry put it plainly when asked whether the Lean In manifesto still rings true to female leaders in 2022.
“No, it doesn’t! The ‘lean in’ message has a familiar ignorant shadow to a line that was rolled out by the former leaders of government, ‘if you have a go, you get a go’, essentially, Sandberg’s message if you work hard enough, and assert yourself enough, you can thrive at home and at work,” Barry, a PR expert, said.
“But we all know that this disregards privilege of race, and class, and totally disregards the village required for female leaders to thrive.”
Structural change key to women thriving
Barry says what women need to lead is simple: better childcare, better maternity leave, and better return-to-work policies.
Beyond that, she says, “we need to listen to what women want and need and make space for their voices in senior strategy conversation”.
“We need to be surrounded by fellow women who actively advocate for one another and consider the rising tide of all women, rather than just thinking of ourselves in isolation.”
“We need leaders who understand the whole person, not just KPIs and duties we perform in the workforce.”
Gibson agrees, saying businesses must implement “systems and processes that proactively develop and support women to overcome entrenched barriers to leadership”.
“Irrespective of gender, all aspiring leaders need to take the bull by the horns when it comes to their career development and progression – you might call this leaning in, but we will only truly transform the face of business leadership when business itself comes to the party,” she said.
Besides, workplaces embracing and elevating women makes really good business sense too, according to a 2020 report from Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) and the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).
It found that getting more women into management led to an increase in the market value of ASX-listed companies to the tune of $104.7 million.
Further, WGEA director Rebecca Cassells said: “We found the appointment of a female CEO led to a 5% increase in the market value of Australian ASX-listed companies.
“These companies also had a 12.9% increase in the likelihood of outperforming the sector on three or more performance and profitability metrics.”