“Lean In: Women, Work & the Will to Lead”

Sheryl Sandberg in TIME Magazine, March 2013

I’m a little late on this book, which came out a couple years ago, but definitely a ‘better late than never moment’. This book by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and highly influential female business leader in the U.S., pulls together both personal experience and anecdotes from Sandberg’s work-life, as well as a slew of statistics to paint a (fairly dire) picture of the state of women in leadership positions. The concept of ‘leaning in’ is for women to strive towards their goals and not be held back by the thousand obstacles that appear at every turn.

I’d label this book as a must-read not only for women in or aspiring to leadership roles in any type of organization, but especially those in the sports industry where the ratio of women-to-men in leadership roles is astronomically disproportionate (even in women’s sports leagues). What may be an even more important audience for this book is men. To understand the path and peril a woman must undertake to obtain and to maintain a leadership role has to be understood to be respected. And to understand is to appreciate that journey.

Now, if you’re like me… unmarried and childless (how many years do I have until spinster status?), there’s going to be many, many pages of this book that you have to slug through that involve the partner / baby / work balance problem. I can respect and appreciate this as I know what an impact having a family has on the number of females that get thrown from the ladder they’ve been climbing once they have children and struggle to balance the ‘requirements’ due to our country’s lack of paid-leave, societal standards of male/female roles in child care, etc. And frankly, I’d find these words incredibly useful down the road if do choose to have a family.

Some thoughts that stood out to me:

  • The first wave of women who ascended to leadership positions were few and far between, and to survive, many focused more on fitting in than helping others.
    • I think this, unfortunately, is still very true, although Sandberg argues differently. There’s this concept I’ve heard in the women’s soccer world over and over again about ‘hiring the best person for the job, regardless of whether that is a woman or a man’, hence the majority of coaches, general managers, owners, and executives (and even the commissioner) are men in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). This, in a women’s pro sports league! Luckily we don’t see the same thing, to the same extent, in the WNBA, a league that has been around 20 years vs. less than 5 years of the NWSL. And I’ve heard time and time again, even from women, this same concept of ‘experience over gender’. To me that is simply a lack of effort in providing opportunities to female candidates whether it’s by not properly opening and advertising positions, by not interviewing enough female candidates, or simply not prioritizing the fact that having no women around is not an issue. It is. Acknowledge it as a first step, then take steps to increase the odds for women to obtain these roles.
  • If you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.
    • When a female speaks up on the topic I presented above, it can be a lonely island. I spoke up about a lack of female representation in the NWSL in a publication by American Soccer Now and contributor John Halloran in “Gender Equality Concerns Surface as NWSL Ramps Up“. When the article published I received a fairly enraged call from someone associated with the NWSL and was ordered to never speak ‘on behalf of the league’ or the Chicago Red Stars again with prior approval. Yes, that is a true story. If you haven’t read my comments, please do so at the link above. I actually made an effort to give credit to the owners for having to prioritize the stability of the league and in no way was attempting to trash those that support the league. But that’s the risk you take when you simply state the obvious. No wonder why more women don’t speak up.
  • If a woman pushes to get the job done, if she’s highly competent, if she focuses on results rather than on pleasing others, she’s acting like a man. And if she acts like a man, people dislike her…”Self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense.” In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities, and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.
    • The short version of this is that it’s an impossible conundrum. The same leadership traits that are seen as ‘strong’ and ‘competent’ in a man make a woman be relegated to horrific comments about her personality, appearance, abilities, etc, and of course she becomes a ‘bitch’ – our go-to term for women that show leadership traits (Hillary Clinton is a good example of this). Women are violating societal norms to take on these traits that are labeled in the ‘man’ column. Yet we need those traits to be solid leaders and to advance our careers. It’s a no-win situation.
  • Other research suggests that once a woman achieves success, particularly in a gender-biased context, her capacity to see gender discrimination is reduced.
    • WHAT?! If we can’t rely on women in leadership positions to reach down to other women and help them up the ladder, then who can other women really rely on? I literally hate that statistic, but I’ve seen it all over. This idea of the ‘Queen Bee’ and there can only be one female on top, because so often there IS only one female at the top, even if there’s 10 to 15 people in the room, there might only be one seat at the table that has a woman’s name on it. If you’re a woman reading this, be the woman that helps other women and don’t be afraid to speak out, even if you get put under a ‘gag order’ like I did. And if you are a man reading this, consider the actions you can take to raise up the women around you. Be an example for positive change.

I really could go on and on regarding this topic from my own experiences and from seeing the experiences of other women, so do yourself a favor and pick up this book before I write the sequel on this blog page.

If you wanna grab this book and are an Amazon book buyer please consider clicking below, as I will receive a tiny kick-back, but consider supporting your local bookstore as well. There’s an amazing one in north Chicago called Women & Children First (in keeping with the theme of this post) and you can order the book there as well:

Happy reading.

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