Let's Lean In and Reach Out

Oct 17, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

I just finished Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book, Lean In. I know I am a bit late to the discussion, but I was out of the country for the past year! And, in any event, this isn't a book review.

I've read both criticism and praise for the book, and my friends' opinions span that continuum. Lean In hit home for me. In the early 1990s, I was the first woman litigation partner at my law firm, and I have experienced much of what Sandberg describes in her workplaces. Having said that, we live in a world where millions (or billions?) of women work in jobs where many of these issues are not even on the radar screen.

This is about using the lessons from Sandberg's book and her exceptional life experience, and reaching out to others along the way, others we know who are striving to create lives that work for them. It's important to look at Sandberg's lessons and use them to help widen and deepen the book's impact. Here are three things that we can address:

1)Let's stop re-learning the same lessons over and over again: I was struck by Sandberg's admissions that she and her friends weren't as knowledgeable about the women (and men) who came before them in the struggle for equality. We need to make sure that the stories of women like Susan B. Anthony, Madame Curie, Eleonor Roosevelt, and thousands of others are taught in schools and their contributions are reflected in everything from popular culture to museums to textbooks to litanies of key thinkers. We also need to start discussions at an early age about how these successful women overcame barriers. As Sandberg notes, and it's true, these issues have been with us for a long time. It's also true that we often gloss over what anyone has had to overcome to excel. That only adds to the sense that things just happen to people -- and that we don't all have to work for them. We need to talk about what we've learned that can help other women succeed.

2)Role models matter -- let's think more broadly about who is a role model: Simply put, there are role models everywhere. Women and men are making their own choices about how to live their lives, and how to do so in a way that works for them. Yes, Sheryl Sandberg is a role model, and I am grateful for her contribution to this debate and her candor about how she has addressed issues of work and family. But the more role models we have, the more opportunities women have to see themselves, and to think about how to best create a life that works. Many women we know are "disrupting the status quo" or bucking cultural norms, and doing so in small or large ways, every day, by making decisions that address the issues they are facing. There are thousands of role models out there, and they aren't all corporate executives, CEOs, litigation partners or high level government officials. Most are our neighbors, friends, sisters and brothers, ourselves. We need to ask questions of each other, and be willing to share what has worked, and what hasn't.

3)Let's ask what would help workers -- at every level of the organization -- be more successful: Across the globe, many women and men don't have the ability to choose their jobs, or their professions. As we work to transform our workplaces and organizations, we need to not only focus on people who are more like us, but on everyone. Women in decision making positions do make a difference, and they can make an even bigger one if they create a culture that encourages looking at everyone around us and making the types of policy decisions that can help everyone work and take care of their other responsibilities. Yes, many small changes can help, like closer parking for pregnant employees; dependent care tax free savings plans; paying attention to the language we use. But big things matter, like offering paid family leave; job-sharing; and ensuring safe working conditions.

This is an exciting time. There are so many changes occurring in the way we structure our lives; it's also a time to make sure that as many people as possible have that opportunity.