Leaning In

Leaning on each other
Leaning on each other

I just finished reading Sheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”. If you have been living under a rock for the last two weeks, the COO of Facebook has written about what she’s learned in the course of becoming a leader of a Fortune 500 company; specifically, regarding what she’s learned about gender in that journey. For her troubles, she’s been roundly criticized and excoriated in the media. However, I found this book extremely useful, tactical and eye opening.

One of the key criticisms waged against the book is that it is written from a too-privileged position. Sheryl went to Harvard. She studied under Tim Geithner in grad school. Oprah was a cheerleader for her as she wrote the book. It’s soooooo a book written from the point of view of a woman who started with all the advantages (although she is definitely aware and explicit that she knows she’s in the minority of women).

The point is this: if Harvard-educated, brilliant, fully-advantaged women are still struggling to break through to leadership positions in corporate America, what chance does a Latina from the barrio have? And how COULD Sheryl really write about her experience as an under-privileged girl with the same accomplishments, when that’s not her story? It just wouldn’t be true, or authentic. Sheryl wrote the book she could, and did it well. And we don’t necessarily HAVE women in a fully privilege-neutral position to write a book about becoming a corporate success. If we don’t have women like Sheryl to help us negotiate through our stagnation in progress, we won’t ever get that Latina leader.

I learned a lot from this well-researched book. For instance, pointing to that trouble breaking through to leadership, “A 2007 study of Harvard Business School alumni found that while men’s rates of full-time employment never fell below 91 percent, only 81 percent of women who graduated in the early 2000s and 49 percent of women who graduated in the early 1990s were working full time.” (Leaning in, Loc. 1458)

You don’t go to Harvard Business School in order to not work, but yet a majority of the women who graduated from this elite school were not working full time 20 years later. These are not women who always wanted to stay at home with the kids – these are women who WANTED to be titans of industry, and who were qualified to be. But they’re not there. Sheryl’s book illustrated why they aren’t, and gives personal and systemic advice on what needs to change so that more of the men who might want to be home with their kids and more of the women who might want to make a run for leadership can do so.

Here are my key take-aways, from the many useful insights I got from reading this book:

Don’t borrow trouble.
The whole title of her book is about women looking waaaaay forward and thinking that maybe if they get that promotion and then if they have kids then maybe it will be too hard for them to balance it all. So they don’t ask for promotions when they’re in their 20s because they’re afraid they won’t be able to make it work if they succeed. I recognize this pattern. It plays into the fear and self-doubt that many women wrestle with. “What will I do if this works?” can be a terrifying question to ask – in part because we don’t see very many role models of professional, leading women who live a life we want to have. (Aside: my CEO in a recent article said that his secret interview question is “Who is your role model?” This made me awfully glad that he didn’t interview me, because I can’t think of a woman in history who offers me a role I’d want to follow. Many of the successful ones were unhappy or tragic. The best I can come up with is Sacajawea.)

Anyway, this fear that success will compromise our long term happiness, families and marriage causes many women to “lean back” in their careers instead of leaning in. That would be bad enough if happened when women actually WERE trying to balance kids and work, but it’s made worse because the young 20-something women who just WANT marriage and families are already curtailing their careers, in advance.

Put up your hand.
So last time I talked to my boss’s boss, I talked about my desire to get Java training and to stay strong technically. Why do I want to stay strong technically? Because I want to be in a position to be a highly-respected technical leader in my company. I deeply value coming up through engineering, instead of the traditionally female-oriented fields like marketing or HR. So I want the technical chops to lead a development team, or even become a CIO some day. Did I tell my boss’s boss that second part? No. I just told him that I wanted Java training. He probably thought I was leadership-phobic and wanted to stay in the code trenches. (Many programmers do.) But I was afraid that if I laid out my ambitions I would sound, well, ambitious.

Sheryl mentions over and over again that women’s strategies of being excellent and waiting to be noticed are not working. Often, men put themselves forward for positions, while women work hard and hope someone notices. This is – straight up – less effective. She doesn’t blame women for their reluctance, though. She cites several studies where equally qualified women who behave in exactly the same manner as men are viewed much more negatively. Women quickly discover that being assertive is unpopular, with both men and women audiences. So instead she offers tactical, negotiating advice for how women can do this while not evoking negative stereotypes.

Another element playing into this has to do with women’s “by the bookness”. We don’t think we’re qualified, so we don’t try. “An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements.” So put your hand up even if you’re not sure you know the answer.

Ask for what you need.
This can be so hard. When you are the first lactating mother in the company and need room to pump, when you need to be home in time to pick up the kids every night, when you need to spend a week a month with your ailing parents… it can seem easier just to drop out or dial back than to assert that you are worth accommodation. I learned this one myself. My first pregnancy, I meekly accepted unpaid leave, and came back after two months, half-apologetic for having had a baby. I worked nearly two weeks after my due date, and only stopped coming into the office after my colleagues got too uncomfortable with my ticking-time-bombness. I felt like any weakness would be an excuse to disregard me. With my second baby, a few months before I was due I set up a 1:1 with the CEO. I told him that I was planning on taking three months this time, and that I would like for those three months to be paid. He said “Sure!” I didn’t even have to deploy the long list of reasons I had carefully outlined for why he should listen to me. I just had to ask him. But it is so terrifying to anticipate the “no”, that often we just skip the asking part and assume the “no”. Our bosses are not psychic. Often, they haven’t lived through the challenges we’re experiencing. If we don’t let them know what we need to be productive, we won’t get it.

A few things I didn’t have much trouble with…

I’m not pretending that I have a model career of supreme accomplishment, but I have made a ton of progress in the last three years. I’m now working in a very rewarding, stimulating environment where I’m respected, and where I provide significant value. I’m really happy at work – which has not always been the case – and it’s entirely possible that the key issues that I have inadvertently NOT had to deal with are a portion of the reason why.

Pick the right partner.
Sheryl says the #1 most important career choice women can make is in their partner. I think she may very well be right, and I think I picked very well indeed. My husband and I have always had a “we both win” competition to see who could earn more. This was probably more on my side than his but… we should earn about the same amount. We are in the same field, educated at the same institution to the same level, with similar work experiences, relatively similar skill sets (they’ve started diverging in the last three years), and similar work ethics. I was a year behind, so I did start at a disadvantage, but that should have evened out after a few years. Instead, it took me nearly 11 years to catch up to him. Then, in the 12th year, I passed him. There are men for whom this would be a threat to their identity, where in order to keep peace in the marriage a woman would have to earn less, or pretend she earned less, or … something. But because I picked the right partner, he was like, “Rock on! Does this mean I can stay at home now?” (Well, not really. He loves his job too.) But my husband would move for my job (if the opportunity was right), dial back on his schedule, pause his growth… in order to let me excel.

So far, we haven’t had to pick primary vs. secondary careers – we’ve been lucky. But I was able to interview for a promotion once because he said that he would do what was needed in his career to facilitate mine, even if that meant moving to Germany. (I didn’t end up getting it. But I think I was seen more positively because I tried for it!) If I am successful in my career, it will be in large part because my husband has my back.

Sit at the table
I think I missed the cultural gender education on this one. I’ve always sat at the table – preferably at the front. I’ve always been incapable of staying silent during a heated discussion. I’ve rarely been shut up because someone interrupted me. I think my life-long interest in male-dominated occupations has required me to give up this deferential attitude: you can’t hang back when you’re the solo trumpet player. I’ve experienced less of the negative side-effects that Sheryl says accompanies women who sit in the front. Or perhaps I just experienced them early (band and wood shop were not what you would call idyllic for me from a social perspective). I sit at the table every time. And perhaps that has helped – just a little – get me where I am today.

Be well-liked AND respected
There are lots of studies that say highly qualified, assertive women are considered unlikeable and hard to work with. I am highly qualified and assertive. So following this logic, I should be unpopular at work. But, well, I’m not. I just had my annual review, and it was called out explicitly that I get along well with others. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. Maybe I work for an exceptionally progressive company? Maybe some element of my personality has mitigated this effect? Maybe my real interest in and enjoyment of other people makes it hard to not like me? (It’s harder to dislike someone who likes you!) Or maybe that qualified and ambitious part of me is well hidden. I don’t think I have any advice on this one; only a grateful shrug of the shoulders that this stereotype has so far passed me by.

To sum up:

  • Thanks, Sheryl, for writing this. Let’s lean together against the doors and open them wider so more of our sisters can join us in board rooms, and more of our brothers can join us in the PTA.
  • You should read this book. If you are a woman, you should read it to better understand the choices, motivations and precedents so that you can make informed decisions about your career and life. If you are a man, you should read it to better understand YOUR decisions as well, and to have more insight into the challenges that face the women you work with (and live with). If you do not work with women, you truly truly need to read it because you have a problem you need to fix. You are missing 50% of the talent you could have.
  • Sheryl’s goal, that I think most of us can get behind, is for all of us who HAVE choice because of our background and education, to truly be able to choose the route we want to take, instead of the route prescribed to us by our gender. It is worth calling out that we also need to ensure that a larger percentage of people HAVE a choice. For many people, there is no career and no “should I stay home or should I become a manager” decision, there is only unremitting labors to get food on the table every day. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we ALL had choices, and could all pick the best path based on our skills, desires and aptitude?
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    Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

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