Why I Choose to “Lean In” and I Hope You Will Too

By Janet Driscoll Miller | Mar 18, 2013
More Articles by Janet

Over the last week, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. Within the first two chapters, I felt a connection to this book. While I’ve seen many negative reviews and attacks against Sandberg, I expect that many of those attacking her or this book may not have read it or may not take away the same perspective I did.

Like many women, I’ve admired Sandberg since I watched her TEDTalk. She was inspirational.

From all that I knew about Sandberg, I thought I would likely agree with her stance in her book. However, I saw many articles focusing on negatives about the book — attacking the book. So I decided to read the book and critique it for myself. I’ve captured here many of the topics covered in the book — specifically the ones I found that I related to the most. I hope all of you will read this post (although lengthy) and it will demonstrate how this woman, this leader,  has struggled with many of the same issues that Sandberg and many other women have faced.

Feeling Like a Fraud

Within the first two chapters, I found myself easily relating to Sandberg’s text. She explained a phenomenon that I have personally experienced but have never discussed with others — feeling like a fraud. Sandberg references Dr. Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women who explained that many women feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. This phenomenon has a name — “Imposter Syndrome” — and many famous women, including Sandberg and other famous names like Tina Fey, have admitted to suffering from it. “Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are— impostors with limited skills or abilities,” writes Sandberg.

Why did I relate to this description? Because as crazy as it might sound, I, too, have suffered from Imposter Syndrome. In 2005, when I started Search Mojo, I remember how a popular song “Cable Car” by The Fray expressed, “Everyone knows I’m in over my head.” I felt like it was just a matter of time before my friends, family, and others would be shaking their heads as my endeavors would fail. I felt as if they were all just being kind not to tell me the hidden truth — that they didn’t think I could be a successful entrepreneur. It was if I was living some sort of lie. I felt I was an imposter, and it was just a matter of time before someone uncovered the truth.

Looking back now, on the one hand, that seems ridiculous. But on the other hand, I still find myself plagued by imposter syndrome.

Many women (and men) suffer from imposter syndrome. In essence, their underlying confidence isn’t always strong. As mentors and managers, we need to help women combat the underlying self-doubt they have. Before I began Search Mojo, I worked at an online survey company — WebSurveyor — as the Director of Online Marketing. I approached my manager, Tom, about attending the Search Engine Strategies show in New York that year for training. Tom turned to me and said, “You should be speaking on these panels, not attending this show.”

I was stunned. But over time, I began to think that Tom might be right. What if I am good at SEO? Why couldn’t it be me? A few months after that conversation, I started Search Mojo (and asked Tom to serve on the Board of Advisors). My story is proof that mentors and managers can make a big difference in how employees (and especially women) can rethink their perspectives and perhaps overcome imposter syndrome.

Downplaying Achievements and the Need to Be Liked

Sandberg addressed how women, including herself, often downplay our achievements for fear of not being liked:

Author Ken Auletta summarized this phenomenon in The New Yorker when he observed that for women, “self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense.”  In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.

The nagging voice in the back of my head reminds me, as it did in business school, ‘Don’t flaunt your success, or even let people know about your success. If you do, people won’t like you.’

When I was a teenager, I remember reading an article in Cosmopolitan magazine about why you can’t get everyone to like you. I considered it a sort of challenge — I knew I could get EVERYONE to like me. I thought, “I’m a really nice person. I know I can do it.” But even after my best efforts, I always felt that there were some people who just did not like me. Perhaps that’s why I often downplay my accomplishments.

During SMX West last week, I was on a panel with Matt Cutts from Google, Duane Forrester from Bing, and Danny Sullivan as well as other accomplished search marketers. When Danny had us each introduce ourselves, I found myself retreating into old ways, downplaying my accomplishments, which in turn can downplay my credibility. I basically described myself as “the President and CEO of Search Mojo who has been in search for a long, long time.” Thankfully, Danny was thoughtful enough to give me more credit, telling the audience that “Janet was Google+ before Google+ was cool.” You would think that by now I’d be over that problem. I’ve got a successful company, a beautiful family, and many accomplishments under my belt, not the least of which was being an opening speaker for the President of the United States. But, ironically, just last week, I found myself doing it again.

Why did I feel the need to downplay my accomplishments? Danny Sullivan felt I was worthy to be on that panel, in front of my peers — why didn’t I feel the same way?

Afterwards, the Search Marketing Expo Facebook page posted a photo of our panel and cited our names. Instead of boasting about my achievement of being on the prestigious panel, I sent the picture to my husband, Tad, via Facebook mail. Realizing I would likely never share the photo and news myself, he posted it on Facebook for all to see:


Hard Work Will Get Me Ahead

Sandberg also covered the “Tiara Syndrome,” what Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, founders of Negotiating Women, Inc., describe as when women “expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.”  I’m not sure if women expect a “tiara” per se, but I relate to the idea that hard work would always help me get ahead.

However, for women that’s not always the case. In my twenty years in marketing, I’ve mostly been surrounded by female co-workers, and I always felt that marketing was a discipline that attracted many women. But more often, my managers have been men. Out of curiosity I conducted a very non-scientific search via LinkedIn for marketers in the United States, I found my own experience reflected in LinkedIn’s own data:

Gender All Marketing Levels CXO or VP Level
Number Percentage Number Percentage
Men 620,103 43.1% 105,323 72.8%
Women 817,872 56.9% 62,626 37.2%

Wow. While this wasn’t by any means a scientific study, I was shocked at what I found. While women may be downplaying their accomplishments and therefore may not be updating LinkedIn profiles, the discrepancy here is stark.

While more women appear to make up the ranks of marketers, they are more often led by men. But often career advancement is about more than just hard work. Why aren’t more women getting ahead in marketing?

Supportive Partner

Sandberg also emphasizes that having a supportive partner is key to a woman’s success, and I could not agree more. Sandberg cites:

Of the twenty-eight women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, twenty-six were married, one was divorced, and only one had never married. 10 Many of these CEOs said they “could not have succeeded without the support of their husbands, helping with the children, the household chores, and showing a willingness to move.”

When it comes to raising children, it does take a village, especially when both parents work outside of the home. I started Search Mojo in 2005, weeks after giving birth to my oldest daughter. Running a company, no matter the size, is clearly hard work. In my case, it also often involves a good deal of travel and meetings. Fortunately, as the Facebook image above shows, I married well. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive partner.

Sandberg couldn’t be more right in her advice to single women, and I couldn’t agree more:

“When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated, and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home.”

The Myth of Doing It All

If you’ve seen the movie, “I Don’t Know How She Does It”, you’ve seen my life. And the lives of so many women I know.

Sandberg touched on the topic that women today struggle with still trying to accomplish everything, often creating feelings of guilt that we can’t accomplish it all without having a nervous breakdown. Sandberg, who is two years older than me, grew up with many of the same media images and messages from the eighties and nineties, telling women that the ultimate dream is to be all things and all roles to all in our lives.

I still remember this commercial for Enjoli perfume from 1980. I was nine years old, but I could sing the entire commercial to this day, word for word. It shows a woman who can work all day, come home and cook dinner and be a great wife and mother. It’s the image that many girls my age saw early on and then aspired to be.

This commercial, while it reflected the strides of women, was just one example of how women, now that they could “have it all”, were beginning to push themselves into an impossible role. In the eighties, as women began to take on even more professional roles and return to jobs outside of the home, the expectations remained that they could take on additional work (such as a new career) as well as maintaining all of the other roles in their lives (mother, wife, homemaker) without missing a beat. And Sandberg and I, as well as so many other women of this generation, grew up with that notion. If we didn’t “do it all”, we had somehow failed the women who led the way for us to have these professional opportunities.

But let’s be realistic here — can we do everything? At some point, you have to prioritize and let go, or you’ll die trying to do it all. Let’s stop the crazy myth that anyone “does it all” and just do our best.

Women Supporting Women

For about fifteen years, I’ve been a member of a listserv called DC Web Women (DCWW). Based in Washington, DC, this list is host to thousands of women in the DC area who work with the web in some way. It’s been a fantastic list to be a part of. I’ve even met several longtime friends through the list, and I met our Content Marketing Manager, Kari Rippetoe, via the list as well.

But last week, certain members of the list began posting commentary that I found disturbing. I started seeing a thread with the subject line: “Sheryl Sandberg Wrong Role Model?”. The commentary started with this message:

>> Am I the only one who thinks Sheryl Sandberg is the wrong messenger?
>> The only reason she has a job is because her brother owns the
>> company. I don’t want to be lectured to by some spoiled, privledged…..

First, this person had the facts wrong. Second, if she had read the book, I’m not sure she would have felt “lectured” by it. But this message from my fellow DCWW member highlights a point that Sandberg covers carefully in the book. Why do we feel the need as women to attack other women?

As Sandberg states:

“We all want the same thing: to feel comfortable with our choices and to feel validated by those around us. So let’s start by validating one another. Mothers who work outside the home should regard mothers who work inside the home as real workers. And mothers who work inside the home should be equally respectful of those choosing another option.”

So why do women act so poorly to one another? Why do we judge each other and the choices we make for our careers and our families? WOMEN: Let’s make a pact, right here and now, to stop judging each other. Judging your fellow women for their choices does more to undermine the role of women than all of the other factors that may hold women back. WE HOLD OURSELVES BACK. Let’s band together and be champions for each other.

In Girl Scouting, part of the Girl Scout law is to “be a sister to every Girl Scout”. Part of that mantra is to treat our sisters kindly and be thoughtful. So let’s treat each other that way.

What Sandberg Missed

Early Messages Matter

The Enjoli example above is just one example from my childhood that sticks with me today as an example of how early messages form thoughts and beliefs.

In 2008 I attended a meeting with the Nike Women group at the Nike main campus in Oregon. The Global Brand Director, also a woman, began telling me about some of the interesting research Nike had been doing around their own messaging towards girls. For example, she shared that it’s important to give girls the message that they should be proud of themselves, rather than defaulting to a message that we are proud of them because focusing the message on others being proud of them reinforces the need to seek approval from others rather than looking for approval from themselves. As a mother of two girls, I have never forgotten that conversation, and even if I tell my girls that I’m proud of them, I first reinforce how they should be proud of themselves for their accomplishments.

Messages resonate, and they resonate from a young age and stick with us for the long term. It’s important for all of us to be cognizant of how we speak to boys and girls and the messages that we send them. Those messages may seem innocent, but could have a long term impact.

Building Strong Girls Through Leadership

Sandberg briefly shared a story in the book about her friend, Sharon:

Sharon’s daughter Sammy pointed at her father and said, “This is Steve, he makes buildings, kind of like an architect, and he loves to sing.” Then Sammy pointed at Sharon and said, “This is Sharon, she wrote a book, she works full-time, and she never picks me up from school.” To Sharon’s credit, hearing this account did not make her feel guilty. Instead, she said, “I felt mad at the social norms that make my daughter feel odd because her mother doesn’t conform to those norms.” The goal is to work toward a world where those social norms no longer exist. If more children see fathers at school pickups and mothers who are busy at jobs, both girls and boys will envision more options for themselves. Expectations will not be set by gender but by personal passion, talents, and interests.

Like Sharon, I recently experienced a similar scenario. As many who know me are aware, I was a Girl Scout myself am now a Girl Scout leader. My troop is full of seven- and eight-year-olds — all Brownies. One of my daughter’s good friends in the troop had recently learned that I owned my company and that I manage my husband. She found that fact amazing and shared it with all of the girls in the troop.

While part of me enjoyed her surprise, another part of me was saddened. Why after all of this time and all of the strides made by women would a girl think it unusual that a woman today would own a company or even be a manager to her husband? I had hoped that my daughters would be able to grow up taking for granted the working relationship that Tad and I have as simply normal.

As a former Girl Scout myself, I certainly credit the organization with providing me much needed skills to become the leader I am today. And as a female business owner, I feel a sense of responsibility to be a role model to young girls and serve as an example for them — to show them that, at our house, having a mom also own and run a business is normal. Hopefully it can become a greater part of the norm, and growing up, hopefully they will understand that this path is also open to them as well if they so choose it.

Investment in STEM for Girls

As the COO of Facebook, I was surprised that Sandberg didn’t touch on research and encourage STEM education for girls. STEM careers represent some of the fastest growing job sectors with some of the best paying jobs. But while girls are participating and succeeding in math and science in high school, many are not following these strengths into careers.

  • According to a National Science Foundation study, women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, although to a lesser degree than in the past, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences.
  • Female scientists are under represented in engineering (13%) and computer and mathematical sciences (26%). (NSF)
  • Women make up 47% of the overall workforce, but are much less represented in particular science and engineering occupations (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). For example:
    • 34% of chemists and material scientists are women;
    • 26% of environmental scientists and geoscientists are women;
    • 17% of chemical engineers are women;
    • 10% of civil engineers are women;
    • 7% of electrical and electronics engineers are women;
    • 20% of industrial engineers are women; and
    • 7% of mechanical engineers are women.

How can we encourage more girls to follow their strengths in science and math and pursue careers in STEM? How can we help more girls become developers at companies like Facebook? Organizations like Girls Who Code help girls develop their strengths and pursue these careers.


Last summer, a study was released by  the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) indicating that women are currently only paid $0.77 for every dollar that a man earns. In my frustration over this statistic, I shared with my Facebook friends that one way that women can take more control over their incomes is to start their own businesses. As a woman-owned business, women should feel they can come to work for Search Mojo and never worry about wage discrimination. Ideally this would be true of all organizations. If women are being treated unfairly, one option is to take control of the situation and become an entrepreneur.

In Summary

In summary, I agree with Sandberg on her stance on many of these issues. One day, perhaps there will not be a need for women to be recognized by their gender, but rather simply by their successes, regardless of gender. Sandberg said it well, “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” Well said, Sheryl. Well said.

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