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“Rather than leaving the power to the men, ‘Lean In’ distinctively places it in the hands of women, altering our thought processes so we can empower ourselves,” writes VOX ATL’s Sonal Churiwal.

How the Lessons of ‘Lean In’ Helped Me Recognize — and Deal With — Sexism at School [Opinion]

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Since its original publication in 2013, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” has steadily risen in popularity. As a tech business executive and Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer since 2008, Sandberg takes an unprecedented approach to gender in America’s education system and corporate world. Recently, I came across “Lean In” when someone suggested that I would appreciate its “extreme” take on feminism. Staying up until the crack of dawn to finish the book, I found that “Lean In” was anything but “extreme.” 

Throughout “Lean In,” Sandberg recognizes gender disparities as an omnipresent force in women’s lives and hones in on the sexist microaggressions intermingled in everyday interaction. Although people most commonly mention physical abuse, such as domestic violence and rape, when mentioning gender inequality, Sandberg reveals the sexism buried in our mental processes and linguistic habits. “Lean In” is seen as radical not because it proposes bizarre and impossible ideas, but rather because it suggests that we are all complicit in gender inequality today by revealing the sexist undertones of everyday interactions. 


The most appealing aspect of Sandberg’s “Lean In” is its approach to what I have come to call “self-sexism.” Consciously or unconsciously, societal gender norms seep into women’s thought processing, causing them to essentially become sexist against themselves. The social tendency of strong women to be called too aggressive and confident women to be called too prideful begins factoring into women’s perspectives, and they begin doubting themselves. Sandberg thoughtfully explains how gender stereotypes devolve into “self-fulfilling prophecies” when women internalize gender stereotypes and begin gender typing. 

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While Sandberg undoubtedly critiques social norms and institutions in power for the ways in which they contribute to sexism, Sandberg’s book uniquely suggests coping mechanisms for how to overcome them. By revealing buried gender disparities, Sandberg strives to reverse internalized sexism so women can take a firm stance for themselves. When discussing women’s hesitancy in the workplace, she writes, “Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that- and I’ll learn by doing it.'” Every powerful piece of writing features a call to action, but “Lean In” presents a call to action that is truly feasible. There are hundreds of novels, books, and op-eds that divulge the sexism undertones of our thought processing and rhetoric. However, elucidating gender inequality does little to persuade men in power to initiate change. Rather than leaving the power to the men, “Lean In” distinctively places it in the hands of women, altering our thought processes so we can empower ourselves. 

Told I Needed to “Chill Out”

Although I always considered myself an avid feminist, upon reading “Lean In,” I began noticing sexism, and self-sexism, in my personal life. Working with a team of boys on an AP Literature project, I left comments throughout our document, noting places to trim unnecessary wording and recommending ways to clarify obscure sentences. I didn’t expect anyone to blindly accept all my comments, but I found guys arguing with me, refusing to delete words in sentences that were quite obviously redundant even to my twelve-year-old brother. It wasn’t about who was right or wrong. Consciously or subconsciously, we both knew I was correct. It was about the boys’ inability to swallow their egos and the constant worrying that I overstepped. After group members asked to cancel and reschedule group meetings half a dozen times, I requested them to be more consistent with the scheduling, for the sake of our grade and their own future. Of course, I was told I needed to “chill out.” It’s my duty to accommodate the mishandling of their schedules. 

Everything fell into gender norms as Sandberg suggested: testosterone-filled guys unwilling to admit their mistakes and my self-doubt. Imagining a role-reversal, where I needed to reschedule meetings, I can so easily see people viewing me as uncompromising and incapable. Had I refused to accept a guy’s comments on my writing, I would, without a shadow of a doubt, be called adamant and overconfident. 

Dealing With Self-Doubt

Thinking about these interactions myself, I can’t help but think I was being petty. This was one project grade towards the end of my high school career. I probably could have failed it without facing any negative consequences. However, it isn’t this singular assignment that worries me, but rather my self-doubt and lack of confidence that is concerning. How can I expect to succeed as an Indian woman in law and politics when I am constantly second-guessing myself? I can’t. As someone who often struggles with group projects because of my adamancy, “Lean In” uncovered what should have been obvious to me all along: it wasn’t my fault. I refuse to accept the blame when none of it is mine. Wherever my journey takes me, this realization is all I need to advocate for myself and stand firm in my thoughts. 

Despite the criticism of “Lean In” as an extreme book, my experiences have led me to believe that Sandberg’s radical thoughts are precisely what young women need to succeed. Women cannot be expected to overcome sexist obstacles in everyday life when they are not even aware that they are sexist. Women need to be assured that it is not their fault and that they should not back down. This realization will undoubtedly and inevitably empower women to rise. After all, as Sandberg writes, “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

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