Over the last some months I had seen Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook featured in articles about her book Lean In. Most of them had dealt with her analysis about what stopped women from reaching their full potential in their careers. So I was curious to read the book. On one of my business travels I picked it up in Singapore airport, thinking it would make a nice read on the plane.
I didn’t find the book overly exciting or directly helpful. There were some data driven tests she quotes that surprised me, as I felt that way too, eg. the impostor syndrome (simply put a psychological state where one doesn’t internalize success well and believes it is due to luck, timing etc and doesn’t take credit for one’s own competence, and believes the bluff could be called anytime; this is higher among women). I used to think I was the only one to feel that way, , and was relieved to learn that most women felt that way. Then there were some things that did not resonate with me much, as it was a different cultural or socio economic context.
But what I appreciated the most was Sheryl Sandberg’s attempt at starting a conversation on the issue of women having equal ambitions in the workforce. Her accepting that she was a feminist in not the bra-burning kind of way, but someone who deeply believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, and for building a case that women leaders are in the best position to help other women.
I truly believe that women leaders can create much larger ripples if they shared their stories and spoke to other women. I have experienced this personally. One of my ex-bosses was the first woman to lead a large technology services company in the country. As soon as she was named the CEO, there was a line up of prominent publications wanting to meet her and publish stories about her personal growth. But she refused; she believed that it would undermine her image as a professional woman executive. She didn’t want to be seen speaking only on women’s issues over business issues. My PR manager and I had a tough time convincing her to do some of these meetings. So I worked it out with her that for every 3 business related interviews/conferences she had, she should do one on women’s related interviews/conferences. And it was fascinating to learn her perspectives during some of these meetings. She was a perfect example of a person who had “Leaned-In”, she truly believed that there was no glass ceiling and in fact it was a great advantage being the only woman on a high-powered board as she got heard more! She used her strong business acumen with her feminine qualities to an advantage. Her outlook on life was so radically different from other women, be it in terms of managing her schedule or raising her child, that it was refreshing to hear them. In conferences, young women always walked up to her and said how she had inspired them to aim higher. After seeing the impact she was having, she became amenable to do a few more of such meetings both internally in the organisation and outside as well.
I am not working with her anymore, but every time I see her featured in an article in a major publication, I feel happy that she believes in the impact she can have and continues to push for more women related issues.
As women when we step out to work, most of us are leaving behind a family at home and carrying our guilt along with us. There have been many instances when I have felt tremendously stressed and wanted to give up and look for a part-time or a work from home option. At the same time, I knew that would be a compromise. But I stayed put hoping that the pressure would pass and I could find a workaround. And surprisingly I was always able to work it out some way.
Sometimes we just need someone to help us see things in a different light. Recently a young colleague of mine reached out to me for a part time job. She had worked with me several years ago and on learning that I had my own firm now, wanted to know if she could do a few hours a day. As far as I knew she had a full time job and had a reasonably good growth at work. Upon talking to her I discovered that, now she has a toddler son and was constantly worried about leaving him behind every day. Her long work hours plus commute made her guilty about not spending enough time with the child. Added to this was occasional illness in the child. Given how strongly the stereotype of mother being the primary care taker is ingrained in all of us, it was no surprise that she felt such a strong guilt like all of us do. On listening further I also realised that she didn’t feel happy about this decision as it meant that the 9 years she had spent getting to this stage professionally, would be compromised and she would also suffer financially. I related to her many of the instances when I had felt the same way, but had realised that things don’t remain the same: children grow, have their own routine and get so busy with all other things that constant company is neither necessary nor expected. I helped her think through options she could try for the next 6-12 months with her current employer that would help her gain some flexibility and still continue to deliver results. At the end of our long chat she felt that she had a different and a much more objective and realistic perspective to deal with her emotions and not get totally caught in it. And as Sheryl says in her book, we can be emotional and truthful to that emotion, but not let it rule the decision we make.
As a woman executive, I am extremely conscious of my role in helping other women grow and thrive in the workplace. Every woman who has grown to a leadership position is in the best position to create an environment for growing more women leaders. How this can be done through formal and informal structures can be an article by itself. But I believe equally important, is talking about how women in leadership positions managed their unique situation as they got to the leadership levels. Only when we tell how we “leaned in”, can we create hope for many more women to “lean in”. So tell her your story….