Throughout the last century women have made huge strides in their personal and professional lives. We can vote. We can own property. We can make our own choices about whether we want to work in or out of the home. We serve as Justices, Senators, Governors, doctors, teachers, engineers, you name it. However, there is still lack of female leadership in the corporate world.
Since her 2010 Ted Talk, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook and author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” has been encouraging women to challenge themselves, to believe in their own abilities, and to aspire to leadership roles in the workplace. Personally, I did not
find the book encouraging. I found it thought provoking. The topics she explores in her book are things that even if you think about it – you certainly do not talk about it. I had never considered asking for feedback from those I work or otherwise share my life with about what choices I have made that may have held me back (post-break-up banter does not count). Now I am considering it. Further, have I made decisions that have held other women back for fear of rejection or being labeled [cue Darth Vader music] a “feminist?” A feminist, Sandberg reminds us, is not the girl version of the “he-man-woman-hater club,” rather it is a person who advocates for gender equality in the workplace and in the home.
Next, it made me think about the relationships that I choose to cultivate. What should I be looking for in a partner if I aspire to a high power career? Sandberg suggests, “find someone who wants to be an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated, and ambitious.” I like this idea – now to figure out a way to determine if that is what a potential “partner” wants. Today, many people still see a woman who is more successful than her husband as a negative reflection on the character or work ethic of one or both people. Why? What can we do to change this perception? The COO of a successful corporation should not have to worry about the hushed concerns people pose to her husband – like it is a dirty secret that she is successful.
She also criticizes women for not taking opportunities because of over-planning. Many women hope to be mothers. Sandberg worries that women who start planning for maternity (sometimes years before deciding to attempt a pregnancy) avoid opportunities in their career that they perceive as harmful to an eventual work-family balance. Unfortunately, these women are often unfulfilled in their careers and underemployed after their children become school-age. Is there a way to identify when this is happening and appropriately discuss how pregnancy, motherhood, and career advancement could co-exist with specific employees? (Facebook’s General Counsel, whether they already knew or not, cringed when they read Sandberg’s confession that she asks women she feels are making decisions that underutilize their talents if they are planning to get pregnant.)
At the same time, Sandberg’s pregnancies were an exception more than the norm. Yes, FMLA guarantees that you can take maternity leave and keep your job. But the stories Sandberg shares about her own experience and the experiences of successful women led me to think about how I would need to position myself to ask for accommodations in my schedule to find the elusive work-family balance. While asking is critical, you must provide a unique asset to the company to continue on a path to promotion or other opportunities.
Men did not escape Sandberg’s advice to “lean in.” Instead of focusing on their careers, she encouraged them to lean into their families. She suggests that if men are more involved in the home, women will feel less guilty about being more involved at work. Consequently, children would experience a blur between classic gender roles – teaching the next generation to defy the social constraints which still have a disparate impact on women in leadership.
Success, Sandberg warns, is not having it all but making the best choices you can and living with those decisions. That’s what we need to think about – what choices will we make and how will they shape our futures?