Disregarding the Backlash and Embracing Lean In

Stanford Sandberg Clayman Lecture-2337Lean In has been called polarizing, and that’s one of the more moderate criticisms. The general backlash is that this is a wealthy woman with a Harvard education telling other women they are failures if they don’t aspire to be CEO and outsource child rearing. I haven’t read the book yet, and after hearing Sheryl Sandberg speak last night at Stanford, it’s clear the critics haven’t read it either.

I’ll admit that I read some of the back and forth over this book and had my own knee jerk reaction, which was that not everyone has the same starting line in life, the same access to education and mentors, not all women want to be away from their kids, and not all women want to be COO of Facebook. At the same time, I bristled while watching Marissa Mayer on PBS’ Makers say she’s not a feminist. Sandberg is being criticized for pushing women forward, while Mayer was criticized for not understanding that equal rights is what feminism is about. Clearly, society is conflicted. And so was I. I want the ability to decide for myself whether to be a CEO, a SAHM, or something in between. I want the same for my daughter, too, who will likely have to face the same issues.

It turns out, I had the Lean In message all wrong.

A few years ago, my daughter told me she wanted to be an artist and an astronaut when she grew up, but that she wouldn’t be a mom because there would be no one to watch her kids while she is working in space. Then, last night, Sandberg retold a nearly identical story of a little girl torn between being a mom and being an astronaut. The little girl wasn’t Sandberg – whose siblings described her as not so much playing as a child, but organizing the play of other children –  it was one of many highly relatable anictodes she told as she explained that Lean In wasn’t the necessarily the answer to inequality, but it was reviving the conversation, and rekindling feminism, as Shelley Correll of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research said. More than about my place in the workforce, Sandberg’s talk reached me as a parent, especially as a parent of a girl.

Girls with an opinion get labeled as bossy, but likeminded boys do not. Aggressiveness in girls is discouraged. Stereotypes hold women back, and they get set early. It’s negative attributes that women in leadership roles have to fight against, like being called bossy or maybe even another b-word. She said that as men gain power, they get more popular, but the converse is true for women. The old answer would be for women to suck it up and get over being liked, but Sandberg’s response is that the more women take over leadership roles, the more society will associate leadership qualities with women.

“Self confidence is a major determinate of what we can do,” Sandberg said. Women should have the confidence to do things they aren’t sure they can do. This, though, doesn’t necessarily mean CEO. Sandberg’s cited a rape victim who had the courage to face her attacker in court, she recalled the story of 16-year-old Condoleeza Rice challenging her college professor who passed off a discriminatory statement about African-Americans as fact, and she talked about women taking smaller, but important steps of asking for a raise or a promotion.

Lean In doesn’t mean that I need to aspire to be a CEO. As I’ve gotten older, I feel more confident and likely to speak out, but my challenge is to instill and help maintain that in my daughter. Sandberg was asked what she would tell her 22-year-old self and she said to believe in herself and be more self confident. She told a story about a time just before her college graduation when the men and women in her department were separated for different talks. She said the women heard a fabulous talk where a woman opened up about feeling like a fraud, and the fear that others would realize she haven’t earned her spot. The talk resonated with Sandberg and her classmates, and honestly, listening to her retelling, I was shocked that super smart women felt this way, too. I hadn’t realized that intellectual insecurity was universal.  (She joked that the men probably heard a talk about coping in a world where no one else is as smart as you.)

Picking a partner is the biggest decision women make that impacts their path. She encouraged women to have a discussion when dating – maybe not on the first date, she joked – about expectations for division of labor. When I married, we didn’t have that discussion deeply, and honestly, I didn’t know my answer. What I thought I wanted in regards to career, ended up not being what I wanted. Sandberg has a suggestion for this, too, which is that women should go hard into their career, regardless of field, and not make the tough decisions on compromise until needed. Too often women make compromises for family well before they have a family. She said that when the time comes, women can always step off the path they are on, but that having been on that faster track could mean more options for when its time for family.

Childbearing years for women isn’t a conversation only for home. Underscored was the fact that gender discrimination is illegal, but gender discussion is not, yet unfortunately many companies treat it as such. She said what most women know: that women tend to hide their pregnancies or throughs of pregnancy, at work due to fear of losing responsibilities at work. There needs to be an open discussion about navigating pregnancy, and a mindset shift that allows women to have families without losing opportunities at work.

She called on men to push for gender equality, not as a favor, but because of the benefits. Companies with equal access will attract top notch female employees, and at home, families benefit from more involved husbands and fathers. As for Facebook – which is one of the pointed questions always tossed at Sandberg – she said Facebook has women in senior roles, they talk about gender issues, and they offer equal maternity and paternity leave to all employees.

After the talk, I gave up my spot waiting for a library hold of Lean In and I bought the book. After I read it, I’ll leave it on the bookshelf for my daughter to pick up. Elementary school is too young to give up on being an astronaut because you’re worried about the family you may have two decades from now. I’m certain Sheryl Sandberg would agree.

Tomorrow we’ll have information on Lean In Circle, and how to get involved. More information from Sandberg’s lecture can be found on Technorati. Video segments of the speech are up on the Clayman YouTube channel and the entire speech should be posted by April 8.

Photo by Paige K. Parsons

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