Women and the Workplace - Learning from Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In

Oh my gosh.  I don't even know where to start with this.  Have you watched Sheryl Sandberg's TED Talk?  If so, you'll have a good idea what her book is about, but if not, go watch it!!!

The book delves deeper into the things that hold women back from career success and leadership: cultural bias, gender differences and different style of communication from men, and even the way we think and perceive our own value!

I'll attempt to discuss this in some sort of organized fashion, but I do wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.  I listened to it on audiobook and found that a very enjoyable format (despite not being a fan of audiobooks in general), though I do wish it was Sandberg reading it.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead - ♥♥♥♥♥

As a woman, even in the millenial generation with our infamous entitlement issues, I was struck by the many, many examples that Sandberg gave that embodied my exact behaviors in the workplace.  She talks about women being underconfident while men tend more towards the overconfident side.  She describes our hesitation to put ourselves forward, and how we value being perceived as "nice" higher than "successful."

There are a few tips I want to share, in case you never get around to reading the book (though that would be a shame!).  These are the things we can address directly, without having to battle an entire culture of entrenched subconscious beliefs.

1) Sit at the Table

I love that Sandberg comes up with these catchphrases for her concepts, because it makes it so easy to share!  In the book, she describes a meeting where the women all chose to sit at the back at the room rather than at the table with the rest of the group, even after being invited.  Sandberg points to this as an example of how women don't put themselves forward, and how you'll be perceived by others as lacking confidence or ability when you do this.  "Sitting at the table" is an apt metaphor keeping yourself in the forefront.

2) Keep Your Hand Up

In this anecdote, Sandberg tells a room of men and women that she'll only take 2 more questions.  After those questions, the women put their hand down but the men keep theirs up.  Sandberg takes more questions, but since the men are the only ones still putting themselves forward and actively asking to be heard, they're the only ones who get their questions answered.  The message here is similar to sitting at the table - don't let yourself be ignored or left out.

3) Don't Leave Before You Leave

This specifically refers to the tendency women have to start making room for family planning before even having children.  While some might claim that this is simply a practical choice, it's not one that's expected of men, and somehow men are able to balance work and children without having to make those same sacrifices.  It's entirely possible (and probable) that some work or career sacrifices will have to be made at some point down the line if there are children involved, BUT Sandberg points out that pulling back from your career before even having a child or conceiving will only contribute to a less fulfilling career and less possibilities and advancements further down the line.

4) Make Your Partner an Equal Partner

Here Sandberg discusses the flip side of the issue - while women are judged negatively for their career successes, men are judged negatively for taking a larger role in the home.  In order to overcome inequality, both partners in a relationship have to work towards (or "lean into") the roles that society would dictate toward their husband or wife.  A woman is far more likely to achieve career success if chores and childcare are split evenly with her husband, and divorce rates are much lower in households where both parents contribute towards total earnings.  Not only that, overall marital satisfaction is happier when work and home are shared as evenly as possible.

Cultural Bias and Other "Hard" Stuff

Now that we've got the easy stuff out of the way, I'd also like to mention some of the more difficult challenges.  Specifically a study Sandberg references in both her TED Talk and her book.  An overview of a person's career was handed out to several students.  Half of the stories talked about Howard, and half talked about Heidi, but every detail other than name and pronouns was the same.

Despite the fact that these were the exact same achievements, people's perceptions (male and female) of Howard were generally favorable, but Heidi was perceived negatively.  This highlights our society's tendency to think of men as domineering, aggressive go-getters, while women are supposed to be nurtering and care for others rather than themselves.

I've discussed this with several people and I believe the problem (the majority of it, anyway) is not blatant sexism.  I believe the problem is our deeply entrenched values that we don't realize we have!  I know I don't typically invest a ton of thought into my first reactions to people.  And I've met very few women leaders that I've liked.  Is that because they were genuinely unpleasant people or was that because I was being influenced by our societal expectations?  That's a more difficult question to answer.

But the case remains that until we become aware of our subconscious prejudices, we cannot fight them.  And I think everyone has them.  I certainly wouldn't have said I judged women for being successful, but the more I educate myself on this topic, I'm not so sure.  Sandberg says as much in her book.  A study done showed that the people who thought themselves the least biased, ended up altering job criteria the most depending on whether the candidate was male or female.  If a man had a criterion, it was crucial.  If a woman had it, then it really wasn't that criterion, but something else that would make for a good candidate.

It is my hope (and Sandberg's) that Lean In is the starting point to a shared conversation that everyone needs to have (for more resources, check out LeanIn.org).  I don't think people need to drop what they're doing and change all their life decisions.  But I think it's crucial that those mindsets be explored, and that we make an effort to overcome our subconscious biases.  Tackling my own has been revealing and even inspiring (if scary at times).  As Sandberg says, "We cannot change what we are unaware of."

After reading (or listening to) Lean In, I don't feel frustrated with the situation, though there's plenty to be frustrated by.  I feel motivated to do my part to fix it, and inspired to shake off some of the chains I didn't realize I had placed on myself.

There was one question Sandberg asks that I found incredibly meaningful.  She asks, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"  We all have things we like to dream about, that we "would do" if it wasn't for fear, obligation, or not wanting to be perceived a certain way.  And now that I've read this book, I'm ready to do those things.  Fear isn't holding me back anymore.

What would you do?

Jenn Wells Design Logo