Should We All “Lean In”? Yes. AND!

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41W7fmW7F+L._SY320_Should We All “Lean In”? Yes. AND!

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” the part feminist manifesto, part how-to career guide that hit shelves this past week has got everyone talking. It seems the world – or at least 20 to 40-year-old career minded women in the U.S. – is hungry for this kind of advice.

A recent USA Today article calls the book, “a lucidly written, well-argued and unabashedly feminist take on women and work, replete with examples from the author’s life. It draws on the ideas of no less an icon than Gloria Steinem, a Sandberg friend, and on recent research highlighting the double binds women face as they negotiate the corridors of power.”

The TIMES published an exclusive excerpt by Sheryl Sandberg on why she wants women to lean in. The take home point from the article: “It is time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled. A truly equal world would be one where women ran half of our countries and companies, and men ran half of our homes. The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our performance would improve.”

Statistics don’t lie, and today there is an enormous body of compelling evidence that proves that when boardrooms and companies diversify, performance and return on capital improve. That fact alone is what has helped to inspire and fuel my life’s passion regarding the importance of women’s advancement. In fact I just did a whole TED talk on the subject.

However, the above examples are just a fraction of what has been written about “Lean In” and Sandberg, and the picture this debate has painted is appalling in its implications. CNN published a piece about how Sandberg herself, and not the content of the book, has come under the most scrutiny, while Anna Holmes of the New Yorker outlined the scathing backlash that “Lean In” has prompted. Indeed, the criticisms have come fast and furious from all directions, from outright claims of failure, to those skeptical of Sandberg’s true intentions.

Gallingly, Holmes notes that many of these detractors, so quick to criticize, had not even read the book before writing their condemnations. Clearly Sandberg has hit a nerve, and sadly the response so far has only served to further expose just how deeply entrenched sexism is in today’s world.

Perhaps Paul Krugman put it best when he said that the response to “Lean In” reveals how “unprepared we are to have women as a full part of our society.” The attacks on Sandberg’s credibility as an advocate for women expose the sad reality that successful and ambitious women are still viewed as an anomaly instead of something to which many women can aspire. A recent study found that the more successful a man becomes, the more he is liked, while the more successful a women becomes, the more she is disliked.

Sheryl Sandberg may be one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in the world, enjoying privileges that most women can only dream of, but this does not invalidate her story or her message. With “Lean In” and its accompanying Lean In Circles movement, Sandberg is encouraging women to step up, to take an active role in their lives, and to create a social network of encouragement and support that will hopefully reach women in all walks of life. This is something that should be celebrated, not attacked.

Sheryl is using her unique platform to tell her truth. It is our choice whether or not to listen. That said, I think there is a lot more to the question “Why are women not succeeding in business at a higher rate?”

I worked at Goldman Sachs for fourteen years and experienced many a ‘lean in ‘ moment. You can read my story on the Lean In website. This platform was created as a global space for women to share their stories and to be inspired to lean in to their ambitions. My story is about the day I did the biggest trade of my career. In fact, it made my career. I sold over a billion mortgage-backed securities to one client.

Though I was able to achieve incredible success at a very young age, what was true for me was not true for many other women. What I personally witnessed was not women not trying, but rather women not being given the same opportunities to succeed as their male counterparts. In my recent TED talk I addressed the main reasons that are given for why women have failed to progress.

The reasons so often cited fall into the following buckets:

  • Not enough women and minorities are available and entering with the “right” backgrounds to prepare them for a career in finance – the pipeline issue
  • Women “opted out” because of the long hours, family demands and travel – the worklife/motherhood issue
  • They were not good at their jobs – the performance issue
  • They were not being mentored or helped along the way – the sponsorship issue
  • And lastly, and harder to frame or explain or target, they just seemed to encounter various bumps or barriers due to differences in expectations, style, attitudes – or otherwise put norms – the other issue

As you can see we women, we have a lot of issues. After last week we now have another issue to add, the “leaning in” issue. Do women need to step forward and not away? Of course. Have I seen women “leave before they leave”? Yes. But to me the bigger challenge, the much bigger challenge is the last one I listed.

In most large firms dealing with women’s ‘issues’ was framed diversity as a problem that needed to be solved, rather than as an opportunity that needed to be embraced and empowered. So what firms did, are still doing, is by and large aimed at the first four buckets. Address the pipeline, fix the women, help them navigate the system and offer flex-time options.

Let me be clear: All of that has helped and should be celebrated, but increasingly I became fixated with the system itself. Fixated on the ‘other issues’, issues which were deeply embedded in belief systems and unconscious biases and norms, which lead to gender stereotyping, but were much harder to see and address. At the heart of it was a dominant belief in a properly working meritocracy, when really it heavily favored those who fit a particular mold.

So, in 2002 I left Goldman, where I had been working for 14 years, and that had given me first hand knowledge of the challenges in reaching a critical mass of women in leadership. I left for many, many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that I got very tired and very frustrated trying to create the shift that was needed to truly make progress. That shift is not seeing women as the problem, but the solution. That shift is in acknowledging that the playing field is not on its own level, and that you must work very intentionally to make it that way.

That’s why I celebrate, truly celebrate, that Sandburg put herself out there with the clear intention of helping women. Read away and lean away. But know that chances are the company you are working for, the system itself, needs to work a lot harder to ensure that your efforts are fully recognized, valued and rewarded. Leadership needs to be held accountable for creating as much transparency in the workplace as possible, so that true talent and hard work gets its just reward.

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