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Lean In HR: A Roundtable Discussion

A conversation among HR professionals about the relevance of Sheryl Sandberg's landmark book to today's workplace.

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HR Magazine June 2015 This spring, HR Magazine’s editor asked people connected to SHRM’s LinkedIn page to participate in a discussion about the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf, 2013). This edited and condensed transcript captures responses from two Skype chat sessions we had with a small sample of the more than 70 women and men who responded from around the world. Clearly, the book struck a chord within our community!

Meet the Participants

Nivedita Bhagnari has eight years of experience in HR and is currently looking for new opportunities in the field. She moved to the U.S. from India earlier this year and is based out of Phoenix.

Jonathan Flickinger, J.D., is an HR manager at Swanson Industries in Morgantown, W.Va. His specialty is labor and employment law and talent solutions.

Pegine Echevarria works with global corporations and the U.S. government to elevate female leaders and aspirational leaders. She was a member of SHRM’s former Diversity Special Expertise Panel.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.

Larry Kennedy is an HR consultant for Carolinas HealthCare System Cleveland in Shelby, N.C..

Ashley Leveque, SHRM-CP, is an HR manager for The Salvation Army in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Rose McClurg is an assistant director of HR at Michigan State University. She started out in benefits administration but is now a generalist.

Joy Monsma is a consultant with Teneo Consulting Inc. in Alberta, Canada.

Kimberly Prescott, SHRM-SCP, is executive director of HR for The Donaldson Group, a property management company outside of Washington, D.C., and communications chair for the Howard County HR Society (a SHRM chapter in Maryland).

Unnati Vashi-Umarvadia is HR director at MMO Behavioral Health Systems in Louisiana.

Folz: Early in the book, Sandberg points out that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave. Why is that, and how does it affect gender dynamics at work?

McClurg: Other industrialized nations are more regulated by their governments. The U.S. economy prides itself on deregulation, as it is better for business. So, with the decision about paid maternity leave left up to individual employers, employers offer less—and employees are disadvantaged because of it.

Flickinger: Rose is correct. The idea of having federally mandated paid maternity leave is a stretch for a free market. However, as time goes by, workers’ needs and desired benefits change. Organizations that offer no paid maternity leave might suffer the consequences—losing the war for talent as the workplace evolves.

Echevarria: We are a go, go, go nation. We work harder, longer and more intensely than those in other countries. Combine that with our social framework—families and children are not top priorities—and it is hard to push through policy on the city, state or federal level. Yes, change is wanted, but it’s not demanded.

Leveque: I think the obvious reason comes down to money. It would be difficult for the vast majority of companies to support paid time off of work for maternity leave.

Bhagnari: India has 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, and recently many companies have introduced a policy of paternity leave for a week. I have also worked in Canada, where the maternity leave is extended to men also so they get time to bond with the family.

Prescott: Currently, several states have paid leave on the docket. Maryland did not pass it this session, but there is talk that it will be pushed next session.

Folz: Sandberg mentions that women are prone to the “impostor syndrome”: the feeling of being a fraud when their hard-earned success is recognized. Why do women feel this way more often than men?

Flickinger: My inclination is to consider it psychological—how we are wired as human beings. When it comes to a failed project or experience, men tend to look externally for reasons, while women look internally. With success, however, it seems most women look outward—and the impostor syndrome creeps in. The fix? I don’t know. Lean In suggests: Own your skills, ability and work. I believe most women need to take Sheryl’s advice.

Kennedy: As discussed in the book, this syndrome is carried over from previous generations, and it will take everyone to move past it. My wife is a senior leader at a college. She has a Ph.D. and a long list of academic, professional and community successes. Yet we still hear that it doesn’t hurt that she is attractive. She ends up questioning what she has to do to be recognized for her accomplishments.

Flickinger: Insert Millennial perspective here. I have a feeling the thoughts of generations past will change with the Millennials taking over the workplace by 2020. We didn’t grow up with this limited view of men and women. I can only speak for myself, but I welcome women in any leadership role—if they are the best candidate for the job.

Echevarria: I think women speak about the impostor syndrome more often. Men feel it, too. My company produces situational training scenarios for the military and others. The military invests heavily in these exercises because they want the officers and enlisted to feel confident and practiced so no one winds up getting killed in actual combat. Over and over, the troops go through this. Women tend to be deeply uncomfortable in the beginning. But with repeated training, they no longer feel that way.

McClurg: Women tend to downplay our achievements. I struggle with the impostor syndrome every day. Perhaps the voice in my head is a little too loud when it tells me that my work is ordinary and my ideas are nothing special.

Flickinger: I’ve heard some women say they do their own performance reviews—constantly!

Prescott: Women are socialized that the men are the leaders. More than feeling like an impostor, I worry that I am looked at as aggressive or bossy.

Folz: Sandberg encourages women at Facebook to talk openly about their plans to have children, and at times she has even raised the issue with female job candidates. How did you react to that as HR professionals?

McClurg: No one knows what the future holds. Even the best-laid plans fail, so why even broach the subject in a job interview and risk a discrimination suit?

Monsma: The lawyers would agree with you, Rose. But I had a situation where I was baffled about why a young woman wasn’t applying for an opening, so I asked her that question. She said she was planning to have a child in the next year and didn’t think it was fair to apply. I told her that thinking about having a baby and actually having one are a ways apart. She applied, and we agreed to deal with the maternity situation if and when it happened.

Kennedy: Honestly, it scares the heck out of me to think of managers asking that type of question.

Vashi-Umarvadia: I agree. It sets you up for a greater possibility of legal repercussions and a plethora of other issues. I think her intentions were coming from a good place in trying to encourage openness and accommodation, but the means to the end are important—and I don’t think we are at a place where we can openly do that just yet.

Prescott: I understand the intent, but, as a compliance nerd, I wouldn’t recommend it to my managers. Primarily because I don’t think that [the information] would be used as intended.

Bhagnari: In India, we are very private. Yes, you share information about your family background in an interview, but not about when you are going to make babies!

Folz: We talked about the barriers women face at work. What are the barriers men face at home?

Vashi-Umarvadia: Not doing things the “proper way.” Even something as minimal as putting the dishes in the dishwasher: utensils up or down? It sounds petty, but the fact that these conversations are taking place at home says a lot.

Monsma: I struggled a bit with Sandberg’s linking men “leaning in” to their domestication. That didn’t sit right with me. I’m guilty of accusing my husband of “cleaning like a man,” but we do it in jest!

McClurg: Many men still operate with traditional gender roles in mind. It is unusual for men to feel comfortable taking on the responsibilities at home. I know several who feel that they would not be considered “real men” simply because their wife or female counterpart is the primary breadwinner.

Flickinger: I was raised to embrace interdependence. I’m newly married (2013) with a 7-month-old daughter. The notion of sharing responsibility, and figuring out that it’s not about who does what, was something I grasped a long time ago. It’s a team. It’s not 50/50. It’s 100/100, all the time. My wife and I split responsibilities, play to our strengths and both put the utensils facing up.

Prescott: I have only recently gotten my head around that. I have been with my husband for over 13 years, and I did everything until our daughter was born. It was a huge shift for us. It took us over three years to get to a point where he wasn’t “baby-sitting” our daughter or doing me a favor to give her a bath.

Folz: Is “leaning in” realistic for people on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder?

Bhagnari: I feel the book misses two important groups of people in society: women of color and middle-class women.

Leveque: I think Sheryl speaks to that, though, Nivedita. She acknowledges that there were circumstances in her life that made it easier for her to “lean in” than it is for others.

Bhagnari: She should have mentioned or at least given examples of how middle-class women can manage their families and expenses. I saw that as a big miss, especially if Sheryl wanted to communicate a message to society.

Prescott: Sheryl made the point that the more women “lean in” to their careers, the more likely they will be in a position to have more financial options. She gave an example of a co-worker who said that investing in child care was like investing in her future.

Folz: In some instances, Sandberg instructs women to take the confident and assertive approach traditionally associated with male business leaders. Are there traditionally “female” behaviors that men might learn from women to become better leaders?

Kennedy: Men tend to be more directive instead of opening up the channels of communication for dialogue.

Monsma: Women I have worked with are more willing to admit they don’t have all the answers at critical times. Whether that is a female trait universally or whether it was the settings I have been in, I couldn’t say.

McClurg: Women are traditionally more relational than men. And I believe they are more team-oriented.

Prescott: Collaboration is a big one. And seeking to understand others.

Leveque: Listening.

Bhagnari: The ability to think and then communicate.

Prescott: Or just to communicate, period.

Folz: Toward the end of the book, Sandberg says it’s helpful to acknowledge that we all hold prejudices, even against ourselves. How can you identify biases you don’t even know you have?

Prescott: I think we would be kidding ourselves to say we don’t all have biases. It’s how we act on them that counts.

Leveque: Acknowledging predispositions is the first step. I’ve heard of hiring managers requesting to have resumes and applications scrubbed of any identifying information as to gender, race, et cetera, so they know for sure that biases won’t come into play.

Prescott: I like that idea—as long as I’m not the recruiter!


We were deeply saddened to learn about the recent death of Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg. Sandberg had been scheduled to speak at the SHRM 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition, but withdrew in the wake of her loss.


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