Miss STEM: A Belated Book Review

Over spring break, I made it a point to read one book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a very long time: “Lean In,” written by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO at Facebook. (Although I had intended to read it much earlier, I somehow never got around to it during the bustle of the school year). I am writing this belated book review now because (1) this book has now found its way to my favorite-books-of-all-time list and because (2) Sandberg raises some incisive points about women in the workplace affected by stereotype threat.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”

Sandberg concluded her commencement address at Barnard College in 2011 with these last words of advice. This quote is a recurring beat in her anthem of a novel; at the heart of Sandberg’s argument in “Lean In” is that women are affected by both internal and external obstacles, relating to stereotyping and gender discrimination.

Internally, women can be held back by inner insecurity bred by institutional obstacles. Sandberg points out that due to societal and familial norms, women believe that they need to choose between family and a career. She later describes the “classic scenario” of a qualified woman slowly backing out of a career in order to make time for a future family:

“A law associate might decide not to shoot for partner because someday she hopes to have a family. A teacher might pass on leading curriculum development for her school…Often without realizing it, the woman stops reaching for new opportunities,” Sandberg writes.

Herein lies the significance of the title of Sandberg’s novel as well as the core of other campaigns such as HeforShe, initiated by Emma Watson and U.N. Women: women should feel empowered to lean into whatever field they pursue. But in order to do so, men must lean in at home. This is just one reason why feminism pertains to both men and women; both genders need to recognize and work to alleviate sexism.

Regarding external barriers and obstacles, two passages especially stood out to me. The first was about the different connotations in calling a girl “ambitious” versus calling a boy “ambitious.” Somehow, calling a girl “ambitious” comes across as much more negative, reflecting the deep-rooted double-standards for the genders.

The second passage, which ties in neatly with the first, describes a study showing the inverse relationship between success and likeability for women in particular. In 2003, two college professors introduced a case study about a successful entrepreneur named Heidi. The case described her accomplishments and career as a successful venture capitalist. The professors assigned one group to read the story about Heidi, then assigned a second group to read the same story but with the name changed to Howard.

Afterwards, both groups ranked Heidi and Howard as equally competent in skill. However, Howard was ranked as the more appealing colleague while Heidi came across as “selfish” and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” According to this study, while success and likeability may come as a package deal for men, they certainly do not for women.

After reading this passage in the book, I was especially shocked/angry/irritated. It is simply unfair that successful women are generally disliked. It is unfair that because of this, women tend to downplay their achievements more than men. It is unfair that it is assumed that women will do the vast majority of the housework, sacrificing their own career along the way. It is unfair that an ambitious woman tends to be seen as overly greedy and opportunistic.

What “Lean In” did for me was raise these issues and more. While I still have to squint to see my career-or-family mile marker way off in the distance, reading this allowed me to begin thinking about how to counter stereotypes, beginning with smaller steps such as writing this blog.

The issues at hand are complex and have no easy, one-size-fits-all solution. While understanding and acknowledging this in “Lean In”, Sandberg offers words of guidance and encouragement to women striving to overcome her internal and external barriers. Don’t be afraid to sit at the table. Think of your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder – paths to success are many and diverse (although I would like to add that not only is one’s professional career a jungle gym, but also just about any aspect of life).

“Lean In” is required reading for women and men, Generation X-ers and Generation Y-ers. Punctuated with personal anecdotes, humor and thought-provoking observations, this book is one that I am very glad I cracked open during spring break as well as one that I’ll continue to think about in years to come.

Commentaries are the expressed opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of The Fourcast staff, its adviser or any member of the Hockaday community.

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Elizabeth Guo

Elizabeth Guo

Elizabeth is an aspiring writer and lover of theater, green tea, and fuzzy socks. She loves to curl up with a good book, rock out to old Taylor Swift songs, and eat raspberry sorbet.

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