Why Only 26% Of Women Will Truly 'Lean In'

Lately, it seems women in the U.S. are divided into two camps: Those who love Sheryl Sandberg, author of "Lean In," and those who don’t. Having read the book, this comes as no surprise to me. Here’s why: For the last 25 years, my company has studied what makes women tick. As a marketing research consultancy, we strive to delve into the psychology of women. With that said, we could have accurately predicted the polarized response we are seeing to this book.

"Lean In" will appeal to 26 percent of women 18-67 in the United States. I know this because we have extensively surveyed these women, and understand what values drive their behaviors and shape their perceptions. We analyzed Sandberg’s perceived values and compared them to what we know women value. Our conclusion: Sandberg, who highly values professional achievement, does not represent the perspective of the majority of women.

She expresses values through statements such as: 

  • “It’s a cliché, but opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.”
  • “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
  • “Also, just being nice is not a winning strategy.”
  • “Do not wait for power to be offered. Like that tiara, it might never materialize.”



The women for whom this message will ring true fit a psychological profile that we refer to as “achievement-oriented.” They value power and wealth. Many of them work full-time, have a stronger-than-average work ethic, and their self-worth is linked to their professional success. About one-third of them have children younger than 18.

By comparing those traits with all other women, we found that achievement-oriented women actually have more in common with men than the other 74 percent of their own gender. For example:

  • 49 percent of them agree/strongly agree that their “career gives their life purpose,” versus 39 percent of men and only 35 percent of the other women.
  • 43 percent of them agree/strongly agree that “having people do what they say” is very important to them, versus 35 percent of men and only 21 percent of the other women.
  • 41 percent of them agree/strongly agree that “being wealthy” is very important to them, versus 41 percent of men and only 18 percent of other women.

Then there’s the tone of the book, which also has women on edge. Through repetition, certain words set a very distinct tenor. For example, "work," "career" and "leader" are used more than 100 times; "success" is used 92 times; "professional" is used 78 times.

Other words that could be considered more traditionally feminine are used far less frequently, such as “progress” (31 times), “strong” (23 times) and “balance” (17 times).

But while taking into account the target and tone, it’s important to remember what Sandberg herself tells us: “I learned from Fred that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe they speak the truth are very silencing of others. When we recognize that we can see things only from our own perspective, we can share our views in a nonthreatening way.”

What Sandberg may not realize is that only about 26 percent of women share her truth -- and truly wish to lean in -- while the majority may, in fact, prefer otherwise.

3 comments about "Why Only 26% Of Women Will Truly 'Lean In'".
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  1. Jennifer Harris from Highheelgolfer, April 30, 2013 at 11:05 p.m.

    So are you saying that 74% of women don't want to be successful or that they perceive success differently. I am teaching women how to play golf to get ahead in their careers and I find the biggest challenge is getting women to first see the value of playing golf for business and then helping them get over their perceived fears. Do you think less women play golf because they aren't part of the 26% who are achievement oriented? And don't see the need to build relationships because they don't care if they make partner or rise above a certain rank in their company?

  2. Michal Clements from Insight to Action, Inc., May 6, 2013 at 8:11 p.m.

    Engaging blog, thank you for bringing this forward.
    As to the percentage, like most books, most likely it has a target audience which is not 100% of women and men. It strikes me as a business/leadership book, not written to 100% of women and men (unless everyone reads such books which I doubt).
    I couldn't disagree more with this interpretation and find that once again, it's being suggested that being a woman who wants career success and achievement means that one is not 'balanced', 'feminine', etc.
    Example: Only 7% of women negotiate for a higher salary where 50%+ of men do, the implication being that it's okay to negotiate (done correctly) and perhaps close some of the earning gap (just a tad, not all of it).
    Well, I clearly am a fan of the "Lean In" messages, don't believe it's perfect nor targeted at all women. In 2013, I wish that we could be supportive of the group of women who want to "Lean In" at work as well as those who "Lean In" in other ways, with their community, their family, etc.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 10, 2013 at 8:17 a.m.

    Consider the source. The look back from a Sandberg may provoke different responses from women than from a woman in middle management without star power. On the other hand, too many women still have a fear of being their own person along with how married/divorced women are treated in the work place verses single women. SIngle women are treated like there is something wrong with them (noticed the gay women didn't have that particular problem in an open company...yet).

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