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When Leaning In Isn't Enough

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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When Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” was published in 2013, I was a bit perplexed by one of the bigger premises of the book: “Don’t leave before you leave.” Women, she wrote, shouldn’t talk themselves out of opportunities because they’re worried about the impact that having a family could have on their careers. Duh, I thought. That’s like planning for the heart attack you might have in your 50s.

When I moved to California, I was surprised by how many female investors and founders mentioned that “Lean In” allowed for conversations about women at work that the tech industry hadn’t previously been able to have. The book’s other big theme was to couch demands for more pay and better assignments as things that would benefit the whole company. Get what you want, but don’t be too threatening. Sandberg’s book seemed pragmatic and at times retrograde to me, but not revolutionary.

I was reminded of “Lean In” yesterday while watching the Ellen Pao-Kleiner Perkins trial. Pao alleges that she experienced gender discrimination while she was an employee at Kleiner, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture-capital firms. She claims that the partners retaliated against her when she complained, which hurt her career. Kleiner contends that Pao, who is now the chief executive of Reddit, didn’t succeed at the firm because she was a bad employee.

What reminded me of Sandberg’s book was an e-mail that was shown during testimony about a potential hire, Amy Chiang. Kleiner partner John Doerr wrote:

I’ve thought a while about Amy, and want to add a big plus, namely her willingness and interest in travelling the world. ... Her willingness to travel works, unless/until she becomes a mom.

Huh? Chiang’s potential willingness to have kids was a strike against her. This isn’t the way that all venture capitalists think, of course, but the e-mail was a sharp reminder for me why "Lean In" had gained so many ardent fans. Even when women choose not to leave before they leave, sometimes it’s not up to them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.