At the moment, I have the good fortune to be enjoying a few days away from the office. It just happens to be during a stretch of gorgeous August weather, amidst the handful of days per year in Maine when having a pool seems justifiable. Poolside is the best place to contemplate things away from work, ignore the lawn that's overdue for mowing and the messages on the iPhone, and to catch up on some reading.
One of the recently published best sellers that I had decided not to add to my reading list this year was Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. The excerpts that I'd read and the interviews that I'd seen left me with the impression that Sanberg's views on professional women and the leadership ambition gap were fairly elitist and not remotely valid for most working women. At the urging of a friend, whose outlook is refreshingly different from mine, I picked it up to give it a second look. I'm glad I did, because I was missing some thoughtful ideas. It was a reminder to me of how fortunate I am to know some amazing and talented women who challenge my assumptions and allow me to "lean in" to their experiences and ideas.
What Exactly Does "Leaning In" Mean?
The meaning of "leaning in" within the context of women and leadership was puzzling to me at first. Does that mean trying harder, being bolder, or being better at taking advantage of opportunities? I discovered that it means all three. Perhaps it also means to let go of insecurity, superficiality, and the victim mentality. These forms of self-sabotage can really hold women back from embracing their own power. Fundamentally, I also think it is about not backing down from what you want or from the fears that can become obstacles in your mind. The book is meant for women, but it seems to me that the advice is good for anyone.
I also believe that "leaning in" means for women to trust in their own abilities, support each other, and listen to those who indicate a willingness to mentor or teach us along the way. We not only need to stop being so hard on ourselves, but we also need to stop being so hard on each other. Instead of recognizing the power and strength of our gender as half the world's population (the half without which it would be impossible to populate the planet), we seem to spend a lot of time being terribly critical of other women. Where does that come from? Is it left over from the evolutionary, competitive need to seek the strongest mate for survival? Are we really still so fearful that other women are going to steal our partner (like we own them in the first place) that we truly believe that cutting them down about their looks, behaviors, and clothing choices will make us look better in comparison? That doesn't seem to be working. Or maybe some of us just don't care enough about what other women think of our shoes. I often wonder what would happen if we tried allowing all women to be who they are while they're dreaming about whom they want to be. Should it matter if a woman is large or small, gay or straight, black or white? Or green? Some want to be Fortune 500 CEOs, some want to raise and homeschool large families. Isn't there room for choice and many different kinds of ambition? If it were your daughter, wouldn't you just want her to be happy and fulfilled by whatever path she chose?
Choices are Power
The overall message of empowerment in the book is valuable, but there are some assertions from Lean In with which I don't particularly agree. In particular, when Sandberg writes about "making your partner a real partner," I have to wonder why she considers this to be one of the great issues behind women not "leaning in" to ambition. I would contend that we all have the responsibility for choosing real partners, not making real partners. If we have a responsibility for anything, it's to be sure that our chosen life partners want to share our lives while treating us with respect, not to have a live-in servant. Those who recognize the need for equal partnerships have managed to co-parent children who grow up to be strong, confident, and independent individuals, male and female, for years. We've had these choices all along; it's just a matter of the level of importance we place on them as individuals.
My husband and I have both worked full-time while raising a family of three children. We make a pretty good team, and so far, none of our offspring shows any indication of extreme or alarming dysfunction. I suppose there's still time, but at the moment, they're all doing pretty well. The person who cared for them while we worked outside of the home made another choice so she could be at home with her children and an elderly relative. It's great if you can afford a nanny and have access to private jets, like women of Sandberg's position, but most of us just don't have that. We do, however, have the power of choice.
What Needs To Change
Sandberg makes several good points about how women aren't leaning in, why they aren't, and why they should. Gender based perceptions are frustrating. How men are perceived to be assertive and bold when women who act similarly are deemed bossy or bitchy is a good one. The only way to change perceptions is to be assertive and bold anyway, and earn respect by getting things done. It's unfair to have to play "nicer" than men, but in the long run, what's wrong with nice? Women who are perceived as weak or unreliable because they might leave the workforce, even temporarily, to become mothers is another beauty. If you've given birth to another human being, you're strong. Now focus on improving your mental toughness, leadership skills, and relationships, and you're in the process of "leaning in" to your will to lead.
The suggestions that Sandberg offers to women for improving the leadership ambition gender gap are valid. I've added a few of my own for consideration. "Sit at the table" is great advice. It isn't just the boys' table. The golf course doesn't belong just to the guys either, if that's where you want to be. Get to know the guys and how they think. It isn't fair to blame all men because women aren't gaining ground in leadership positions. Seek challenges and take risks. Don't be afraid of your own voice. Just make sure it is a confident voice, and not a "little girl" voice. Don't use tears to get what you want, but if you struggle with emotions during difficult conversations, breathe, gather yourself, and finish what you have to say. Believe in your abilities and stop the negative self-talk. Don't let the media dictate how you think you should look. The greatest single source of female insecurity is poor body image. Be a continuous learner. It's true that knowledge is power. The ability to learn and adapt is the key to your future success. Oh, and don't forget about likeability. This is still more challenging for women than for men because of the negative perceptions/stereotypes of successful women, so be aware, but don't stop trying. Be authentic, be relentless, and smile while you're leaning in hard to get to where you want to be.
Thank you for reading. How do you "lean in"?
Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-sparrow/.