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Lean - In

I finally had the time to read Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book on women’s equity in the workplace “Lean-in” and even if it is almost a decade old, Ms. Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. Women have not advanced as much as Ms. Sandberg would have hoped. She does provide insight and guidance and I found much of the book, unfortunately, still relevant today. I can’t communicate all the wonderful research, antidotes, and sage wisdom she provides in her 400+ book but I tried to glean some of its highlights to motivate you to Lean-In.


Some sobering statistics follows. “Women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States in the early 1980s. Since then, women have slowly and steadily advanced, earning more and more of the college degrees, taking more of the entry-level jobs, and entering more fields previously dominated by men. Despite these gains, the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the past decade. A meager twenty-three of the S&P 500 CEOs are women. Women hold about 25 percent of senior executive positions, 19 percent of board seats, and constitute 19 percent of our elected congressional officials. The gap is even worse for women of color, who hold just 4 percent of top corporate jobs, 4 percent of board seats, and 6 percent of congressional seats. While women continue to outpace men in educational achievement, we have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, women’s voices are not heard equally. Although there has been progress in the last decade it has not changed much.

“In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives—the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care.

Sandberg recounts a meeting she hosted for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at Facebook. 15 executives were invited to the meeting and when it was time for lunch. Most of the guests were men and they had no problem grabbing food and taking a seat at the conference table. Secretary Geithner’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. Sandberg motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats.

The four women had every right to be at this meeting, but because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants. She pulled them aside to talk and pointed out that they should have sat at the table even without an invitation, but when publicly welcomed, they most certainly should have joined. At first, they seemed surprised, then they agreed. Before leaning in we must first feel comfortable sitting at the table.

“When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well-liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political,” “can’t be trusted,” “difficult” or a “bitch”. At least, those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know. Most of us are never told about this downside of achievement. Still, we sense this punishment for success. We’re aware that when a woman acts forcefully or competitively, she’s deviating from expected behavior. If a woman pushes to get the job done, if she’s highly competent, if she focuses on results rather than on pleasing others, she’s acting like a man. And if she acts like a man, people dislike her.

“If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she is considered more nice than competent. Since people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women. Acting in stereotypically feminine ways makes it difficult to reach for the same opportunities as men, but defying expectations and reaching for those opportunities leads to being judged as undeserving and selfish. Nothing has changed since high school; intelligence and success are not clear paths to popularity at any age. This complicates everything, because at the same time that women need to sit at the table and own their success, doing so causes them to be liked less.”

Owning one’s success is key to achieving more success. Professional advancement depends upon people believing that an employee is contributing to good results. Men can comfortably claim credit for what they do as long as they don’t veer into arrogance. For women, taking credit comes at a real social and professional cost. In fact, a woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of getting hired.

“All of us—men and women alike—have to understand and acknowledge how stereotypes and biases cloud our beliefs and perpetuate the status quo. Instead of ignoring our differences, we need to accept and transcend them.”

For decades, we have focused on giving women the choice to work inside or outside the home. We have celebrated the fact that women have the right to make this decision, and rightly so. But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership. It is time to cheer on girls and women who want to sit at the table, seek challenges, and lean in to their careers.

Today, despite all of the gains we have made, neither men nor women have real choice. Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family “responsibilities”, they don’t have real choice. And until men are fully respected for contributing inside the home, they don’t have real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible. Only then can both men and women achieve their full potential.

None of this is attainable unless we pursue these goals together. Men need to support women and, I wish it went without saying, women need to support women too.”

“It is a painful truth that one of the obstacles to more women gaining power has sometimes been women already in power. Women in the generations ahead of me believed, largely correctly, that only one woman would be allowed to ascend to the senior ranks in any particular company. In the days of tokenism, women looked around the room and instead of bonding against an unfair system, they often viewed one another as competition. Ambition fueled hostility, and women wound up being ignored, undermined, and in some cases even sabotaged by other women.”

Often, these queen bees were rewarded for maintaining the status quo.

Once in my career, I felt that a senior woman treated me poorly. She would complain about me and my team behind my back but would not discuss any concerns she had with me, even when I asked directly. When I first met her, I had high hopes that she would be an ally. When she turned out to be not just unhelpful but actually spiteful, I was not just disappointed; I felt betrayed.

“An “us versus them” crusade will not move us toward true equality. Nor will an “us versus us” crusade, which U.C. Hastings law professor Joan Williams calls the “gender wars.” These wars are being waged on many fronts, but the mommy wars, which pit mothers who work outside the home against mothers who work inside the home, attract the most attention. As Professor Williams explains, “These mommy wars are so bitter because both groups’ identities are at stake because of another clash of social ideals: The ideal worker is defined as someone always available for work, and the ‘good mother’ is defined as always available to her children. So ideal-worker women need to prove that, although they weren’t always there, their children are fine, fine, fine.… Women who have rejected the ideal-worker norm and settled for a slower career (or no career) need to prove that their compromise was necessary for the good of their families. So, you have each group of women judging the other, because neither group of women has been able to live up to inconsistent ideals.”

Professor Williams is absolutely right. One of the conflicts inherent in having choice is that they make us second-guess ourselves and, in turn, resent one another.”

Sandberg also provides guidance on how to “push back” on a male executive’s ideas. Questions coming from another male are well appreciated but coming from a woman they are dismissed or the woman is categorized as a “bitch.” Sandberg recommends leading with humor but if a fast wit fails you one must not be concerned with being liked by everyone. As women we are conditioned to wanting to be liked by everyone. Mark Zuckerberg communicates this to Sandberg and she states that it was great advice. We must be willing to take a stand and our male counterparts must learn to deal with it. If more and more women provide constructive criticism, they will eventually have to start listening.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is titled

“What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”

It is a powerful question and Sandberg writes that “it is her act of writing this book was her doing what she was most afraid.” If we can ponder this question and determine what we would do if it didn’t scare us so badly, and take a small step towards it, we will be Leaning In.

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