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At SEJ we take a lot of pride in the girl power on our team, so we thought it would be fitting to read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (affiliate link) for the latest installment in our #SEJBookClub series.
I read Lean In last year and ever since I’ve referred it to a number of people, men and women alike. It has reverberated often in my life and I still find myself regularly discussing with other female workaholics about many of its salient points. I even used it as inspiration for a speech in my Toastmasters group.
The book addresses takeaways that seem so obvious but continue to be dismissed by many. Sandberg highlights a variety of real-world examples and studies to situate her overall objective of encouraging women to shift the way they approach their careers and work/life balance. As the COO of Facebook and former Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, Sheryl knows these topics well and provides a layer of personal experience to her positioning.
Here are some of my favorite takeaways from Lean In.
Keep Your Hand Up
This resonated with me quite a bit. In the book, Sheryl shares a story regarding giving a speech to Facebook employees about gender in the workplace. Afterward, a female colleague approached her and wanted to talk. She said, “I learned something today. I learned that I need to keep my hand up.”
Sheryl asked the woman what she meant, and the commentator elaborated that as Sheryl was giving her talk, she said she was only going to take two more questions. So, after two more questions had been asked and answered, she put her hand down. However, Sheryl continued to take more questions, but they were only from men.
“And I thought to myself, wow, if it’s me—who cares about this, obviously—giving this talk—and during this talk, I can’t even notice that the men’s hands are still raised, and the women’s hands are still raised, how good are we as managers of our companies and our organizations at seeing that the men are reaching for opportunities more than women? We’ve got to get women to sit at the table.”
I know I need to be more assertive and I’m sure I would’ve been someone to put her hand down. Reading this made me reconsider taking a more pro-active role when opportunities arise to keep my hand up, figuratively speaking.
Success and Likeability: Women are Judged More Harshly
One of the case studies Sheryl shares took place at Harvard Business School. The study focuses on a woman named Heidi Roizen who is an operator in a Silicon Valley company and now uses her contacts to be a successful venture capitalist.
A professor had two groups of students read Heidi’s story. However, for half the students, he changed one word: “Heidi” to “Howard.”
Turns out that one word made a big difference. Both men and women thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent. And both men and women found Heidi less appealing to work for, and less likable in general. Howard’s a great guy. You want to work for him. You want to spend the day fishing with him. But Heidi? Not so sure. She’s a little out for herself. She’s a little political. You’re not sure you’d want to work for her.
“This is the complication. We have to tell our daughters and our colleagues, we have to tell ourselves to believe we got the A, to reach for the promotion, to sit at the table, and we have to do it in a world where, for them, there are sacrifices they will make for that, even though for their brothers, there are not.”
To me it was fascinating how much our subconscious associations for men and women differ, for both men and women alike!
Gender and Leadership
This former study ties into an additional section of the book which talks about perceptions of assertive females beginning in their youth. Sheryl states:
“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a leader. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded bossy. Words like bossy send a message to girls not to speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.”
Sheryl took this a step further and launched “Ban Bossy,” a campaign to encourage girls to be more confident and “flex their leadership muscles!”
Though it’s intended to encourage leadership in girls, the campaign has been met with some resistance. In an LA Times article on the subject, writer Robin Abcarian relays that she is actually a fan of the word “bossy” and believes it conveys the seizing of authority in low-stakes situations. She asserts it’s hardly an insult; it can be amusing (i.e. Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”); and that it doesn’t hurt to be called bossy — and Sandberg is living proof of this.
While I think Abcarian brings up some valid points, I interpreted Sandberg’s argument as being directed specifically toward young girls and the distinction applied to the same behaviors in children based upon their gender. When applied specifically to kids, assertiveness is often approached differently, and I think that’s what Sandberg is trying to spotlight in her campaign.
Take Responsibility for Your Successes
Another portion of the book asserts women systematically underestimate their own abilities. If you test men and women, and you ask them questions on totally objective criteria like GPAs, men often report slightly higher number than are accurate, while women tend to report numbers slightly lower.
Sheryl discusses a study of people entering the workforce out of college. It showed nearly 57 percent of men negotiate their first salary, while only 7 percent of women do. And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors.
“Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success, or they don’t even understand their own success.”
Make Your Partner a Real Partner
Although demographics are changing rapidly, studies still indicate if a woman and a man both work full-time and have a child, the woman will do twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare the man.
Sheryl asserts the cause is complicated:
“I think, as a society, we put more pressure on our boys to succeed than we do on our girls. I know men that stay home and work in the home to support wives with careers, and it’s hard. When I go to the Mommy-and-Me stuff and I see the father there, I notice that the other mommies don’t play with him. And that’s a problem, because we have to make it as important a job, because it’s the hardest job in the world to work inside the home, for people of both genders, if we’re going to even things out and let women stay in the workforce.”
I’m not married, but when I am, nurturing a true partnership will be of vital importance to me. I do want kids, but I also want to continue working as I do now. Having a husband that understands, is supportive, and a true 50/50 partner in that process is critical.
Don’t Leave Before You Leave
Some women start thinking about starting a family long before they really need to do so. Sheryl shares the story of a young-looking woman who approached her about options when she has a baby.
“So are you and your husband thinking about having a baby?” Sheryl asked, and the woman replied, “Oh no, I’m not married.” She didn’t even have a boyfriend. Sheryl’s response was “You’re thinking about this just way too early.”
“She starts thinking about having a child, and from the moment she starts thinking about having a child, she starts thinking about making room for that child. ‘How am I going to fit this into everything else I’m doing?’ And literally from that moment, she doesn’t raise her hand anymore, she doesn’t look for a promotion, she doesn’t take on the new project, she doesn’t say, ‘Me. I want to do that.’ She starts leaning back.”
I had a conversation with a friend recently related to this topic. She is a web analyst for a consumer brand and has strong aspirations for moving up in the company as well as advancing her overall career.
She approached a superior inquiring about the paths to pursue and the responsibilities to take on to make that happen. She was surprised to be told she shouldn’t pursue opportunities to move up as she may want to have kids soon and then her priorities may shift.
It was appalling to receive this feedback, both in terms of it being an excuse not to provide her guidance or an answer to her question, but also in the presumption that having children will inevitably be prohibitive to her dedication to her career.
Climbing the Jungle Gym
I loved this analogy and it’s applicable to men and women alike. We often hear of peoples’ aspirations to “climb the corporate ladder.” Sheryl articulates that we should think of our careers as jungle gyms, not ladders. Ladders relay a single trajectory which is no longer common. There’s no longer a need to stay in one field and try to “climb the corporate ladder”.
We can venture down different paths and explore numerous possibilities (just like trying to climb to the top of a jungle gym) on the way to achieving our goals.
“A jungle gym scramble is the best description of my career,” writes Sheryl, who attributes the metaphor to Fortune magazine editor Pattie Sellers. “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today.”
What are your favorite takeaways from Lean In?
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