Is Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ advancing the cause for women?

The book that spurred on a global cultural conversation around women's ability to achieve a work-life balance is examined by Rowena Ironside, chair of Women on Boards UK

March 18, 2015

World Finance speaks to the chair of a female executive’s organisation as to whether tangible change has been achieved since Sandberg’s book, which has been a lightning rod for the gender conversation.

Some call it a movement, others a divisive pitch. However you refer to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’, be prepared to get engaged in a fiery debate. But is encouraging more women to demand more in the office place really advancing the female cause? And are managers heeding the message? Rowena Ironside, Chair of Women on Boards UK, joins me with her thoughts.

World Finance: First Rowena, can you tell me what were the main takeaways for you in this book?

Rowena Ironside: What I liked was the fact that it was a really senior, really successful woman, talking about some of the challenges that women have, and some of the things that maybe individual women can do differently, and probably one of the most important is don’t check out before you leave, don’t start thinking that you need to step back because you’re planning a family in a few years time.

World Finance: Some critics have said that that actually places undue pressure on women who are maybe on the fence about having a family, maybe scaling back, is there really an issue in doing that?

Rowena Ironside: Well I think the point that Sheryl’s making is that if you take maternity leave when you’re senior, you’re probably going to have more choice than if you take it when you’re younger, and because you’re going to be so busy in those first three, six, nine months, juggling the two, that if you’ve got a job that really inspires you and maybe you’ve got a bit more support, you’re more likely to be able to stick it than if you’re still in a more junior role.

To see someone who’s been so successful exposing some vulnerabilities, exposing difficulties I think gives women hope, it encourages and inspires them, because they think “if she struggled, then I shouldn’t feel so bad with the fact that I’m actually having a hard time.”

World Finance: Beyond this conversation, all the noise that’s been created around her book, are we really seeing any tangible change? 

Rowena Ironside: I’m hopeful, because there is so much noise around it at the moment, I think there was the initial suffragette movement, there was a lot of progress, and then I think people started to take things for granted, they thought that we were on a roll and that things would happen naturally.

A lot of the problems that are faced by women are around how organisations are designed, and when they were originally designed it was mostly men, so you didn’t have to worry about flexible working. Organisations are slow to change, so the fact that they haven’t just changed just because more women are there, you look back and it’s not surprising.

So now we have recognised, ok, there are some sticking points, there are some things people need to be aware of to help people get through the organisation, and therefore I think the debate and the spotlight on it is really useful, because ultimately it is about talent, the hidden costs of the wasted talent, and the more visibility people have into that the better.

World Finance: So do you think that more men should be involved in this conversation as much as we have women engaged?

Rowena Ironside: I mean men are essential. I love Emma Watson’s He For She campaign, because it highlights the fact that we can’t do this without men, but I think it’s also very hard for men to imagine what it’s like to be a woman. We need them onside, we need them engaged, and the more everyone understands that they are very much a part of the solution, that will speed up the progress.

World Finance: European Commission, should it be involved in this conversation in a much more concerted manner?

Rowena Ironside: I think the role that it’s played so far, the threat of quotas, what that’s made happen in the UK has been very valuable, and clearly there are countries in Europe where having someone pointing out that something needs to be done is even more useful. So I’m glad they’re doing what they’re doing, it’s been a very useful stick to hold over the FTSE companies. We’ve achieved a lot just with the threat of quotas from the EU, so I’m happy with what they’ve done.

World Finance: Now of course the conversation never ends, there’s always things that can be done. Can you tell me, what else can corporates do to engage and promote women?

Rowena Ironside: There’s a huge amount still to be done. Going back to Sheryl’s book, one of the things that really struck me was her comment about, as a senior manager really, in the C Suite at Google, realising that as a pregnant mum, she needed to be able to park her car closer to the front door. That’s the difference that having a senior woman makes, because the guys weren’t opposed to that, they’d just never thought about it. Those sort of stories I think are just so telling about why we need more women, but also how much is still to be done.