As I am about halfway from London to Toronto, I am reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. It is interesting that this book provokes enough of a reaction in me that I am only able to put it down to actually start writing myself. I have only gotten as far as chapter three, and already so many issues discussed in the book resonate with me that it is hard to decide where to start.
Perhaps the best way to start is how I even found out about the book. I was on a business trip, one of my first official ones, in San Diego. The company had organized an outing for the employees and invited guests attending our meeting to come along. I was spending some time out in the harbour on a boat sipping wine and chatting with colleagues and guests. Having connected with a very friendly colleague based out of our New York office, we were jumping from topic to topic as our plastic wine glasses emptied. At some point she grabbed my arm and said “I don’t know if you are ambitious, but I think you should read “Lean In”, I do not always agree with everything the author says but there are some really good points.”
The way I see this comment is that unknowingly, my really friendly colleague passed some sort of judgement on the author of the book, and on my potential willingness to read it depending on my levels of ambition. Basically, my colleague embodied a typical womanly ‘fault’ (If I can call it that), described early on in the book.
It is too early to really pass judgement on the book as a whole, but three chapters in I can’t put it down. My colleague was right in a way; whether you agree with Sheryl Sandberg or not, it is a well written and interesting read. One thing that stands out to me as mildly irritating is that Sheryl Sandberg herself almost apologizes several times within the first chapter for her view that more women should be at the top. She is right that perhaps many women have no desire to be fortune 500 leaders, but why does she need to emphasize this so often? Just because not all women want to have a high-level managerial role does not take away from the need for more women in top positions in corporations and government.
I read a study some years ago about how we communicate with children, and the gender differences in our speech that creep in without really thinking about them. One thing mentioned was the emphasis on physical attributed for girls (you look so pretty, that is such a pretty dress), and how this differs from boys, on average (you’re so brave, you are so smart). When I see my cousin’s children, I have had a hard time finding things to say to her daughter that have nothing to do with how darling she looks or how sweet she behaves (values related to her appearance). Sheryl Sandberg brings up an example of a video that went viral with an outraged girl who was angry that all she was meant to desire were pink toys, and that perhaps some girls also like super heroes. This study, and now the same concept brought up again in this book resonates with me, because I do sometimes struggle not to fall into telling the young girls in my life the same things I was told as a child. And surely there are better things we can say, things that encourage a young girl’s sense of self-worth being based on attributes other than her appearance. If we do, and if we do so more often, perhaps more girls grow up believing their brains are more attractive than their haircut.
There is one event that has marked how my career has progressed so far so strongly that I could never forget it. Sometimes, a trigger will bring back the memory and this book certainly does; Sheryl Sandberg mentions that women are less likely to be confident than men. A point that is hard to argue if you take a few minutes to really listen to your male and female peers and look around the average boardroom. Women are also less likely to take opportunities if they do not fit into what they feel they are qualified for. The disappointing and profoundly life-changing thing that happened to me in this regard was something my mother said years ago. I told her I had been asked to direct a Voice-Over session for a commercial for Dove. From an academic perspective, I had up to that point only really trained as a scientist. My mother said “but are you going to do it?” with a lot of doubt in her voice. When I said yes, she replied with a gasp of surprise and worry saying “but how can you? You didn’t go to school for that!”
Basically, while we may all feel like a “fraud” sometimes (another topic that touched me in Sheryl Sandberg’s book), one event that sparked the future of my career as I know it, was this exact event. While she herself had always seemed so courageous to me, I could not understand why of all people my mother would doubt me. There is one thing I have to add in defense of my mother, she may have doubted me but she never failed to encourage me. I am just grateful that her doubt did not discourage me enough to not even try. That first time in the studio I was as nervous as I could be, but boy am I glad I gave it a shot. Turns out that I did pretty good, handling all voice-overs recorded in Toronto, for that same brand, during five more years after that first scary time.
While being scared of being under qualified for a task has not been as strong an influence for me as for some other women, I recognize a lot in myself from Sheryl Sandberg’s descriptions of how women may hold themselves back in the workforce. Do you recognize anything from your career?