Advice to Graduates: “Lean In” to your Careers

Posted by Bob Corlett on June 6, 2011

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave the commencement address this year at Barnard College.

Sandberg's address inspired a blog post by Andrew McAfee for the Harvard Business Review. Predictably, he says, she took up the topic of female underrepresentation at the top ranks of government and business: "Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women, numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women."

Then, not so predictably, Sandberg places the responsibility for this inequality largely on the young women themselves, rather than on external forces such as sexism and unequal burdens.  She encourages young women to be ambitious and self-confident, and to "lean in" to their careers, especially before important life choices loom. She says:

"Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn't happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it's the last year of med school when they say, I'll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I'm going to want more balance one day. Maybe it's the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I'm not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I'm going to want kids eventually. These women don't even have relationships, and already they're finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don't yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back... So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That's the only way, when that day comes, you'll even have a decision to make."

McAfee says he finds Sandberg’s advice "refreshing, novel, and super smart." And he says he echoes her advice, and expands it to all of this year’s graduates:

"The rate of change and uncertainty in the economy is high and getting higher, and good jobs might well be getting harder to come by. The best way to thrive in this environment is to be excellent at what you do, and the best way to become excellent is to lean way in to your career as it starts."

Topics: Career Advice, Getting Started