Despite great strides academically and professionally, women still face gender inequality and unfair compensation in the workplace, along with discrimination, sexual harassment, family-unfriendly policies, and fewer mentors. Internal factors hold them back, as well. Many women lack self-confidence and don’t speak up at work. They don’t take career risks, compromising professional goals for family duties.
Author Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “lean in” -- to take risks and be ambitious in their professional goals. Change will come when women speak up, gain confidence, demand more help at home, and ascend to more leadership positions.
Women tend to leave the workforce when mixing career and family becomes too difficult; as the years go by, there are fewer women in high-ranking leadership positions.
Part of the problem is the “Leadership Ambition Gap.” Fewer women aspire to senior level jobs. Why? Men are applauded for being ambitious, but hard-charging women violate societal conventions. This bias begins early. Gender stereotypes from birth encourage boys to be leaders, but girls are encouraged to be nurturing. Assertive girls are labeled “bossy.”
The Leadership Ambition Gap can be narrowed when women throw aside their fears, aim high, and pursue leadership boldly without regard for gender stereotypes.
Many women are plagued by “impostor syndrome,” held back by self-doubt and insecurity. They feel like a fraud and underestimate themselves, taking negative feedback and stereotypes as truth.
Women can fight impostor syndrome by understanding this feeling is a distortion of reality. When they’re feeling self-doubt, they can remind themselves of their intelligence and past successes; when self-confidence wanes they can act confident, even if they don’t feel it.
Self-confidence is critical for workplace success because it allows you to reach for new opportunities -- something women need to do much more of.
A 2003 study tested perceptions of men and women in the workforce. The case study of a successful entrepreneur named Heidi was given to one group. An identical study was given to a second group, but with Heidi’s name changed to Howard. The students respected Heidi and Howard equally, but gave Howard greater likeability scores. The takeaway: men can be decisive and driven and remain likeable, but women are punished for acting the same way. Society expects women to act in a nurturing and communal way.
This bias hurts women financially. This is called the “gender discount problem.” Because women are seen as communal, they are often expected to help coworkers and take on additional projects without additional reward. Negotiating for a raise or compensation is another aspect; both men and women react unfavorably when a woman advocates for herself. To overcome this, women fare better in negotiations if they come across as concerned about others, offer a valid explanation for the negotiation, and...
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Women in the U.S. and developed countries are better off today than the women who came before them -- the ones who fought for the rights women take for granted, such as voting.
They are certainly better off than women in countries without even basic civil rights. In too many places, women face incomprehensible struggles. In Afghanistan and Sudan, for example, most girls aren’t allowed an education. Worldwide, 4.4 million women and girls are trapped in the sex trade. There are places where rape victims are cast out of their homes or even jailed for “moral crimes.”
Women in the U.S. and developed countries have also made great strides academically and post-college, comprising 50% of college graduates by the early 1980s. Numbers have steadily improved for women in the areas of degrees earned, jobs taken, earnings made, and entering traditionally male-dominated fields.
But women can’t be complacent and rest on the strides already made. There is still a great deal of work to be done to create gender equality in the professional world.
The experiences of the women in Sandberg’s family mirror societal changes through the years.
Her grandmother, born in the 1910s, was pulled out of high school to help earn money for the family. After a teacher insisted she return, she went on to graduate from UC Berkeley. Lore has it that when she left her job to get married it took four people to replace her. During her marriage, she saved her husband’s ailing business and even sold watches out of her car to raise money for a clinic -- turning a profit.
Sandberg’s mother, born in the 1940s, was treated equally with her brothers in terms of educational expectations. She graduated from UPenn and entered a Ph.D. program, but dropped out to become a stay-at-home parent and active volunteer.
Sandberg, her brother and sister, were all expected to achieve academically. In an era of increasing equality, she was raised to believe all career paths were open to her. In college, she saw both genders focus equally on academics; men and women were aggressively competitive. She and her friends assumed they would have careers and children. The playing field finally seemed level.
But as Sandberg ascended to the top of the business world,...
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Have you ever felt that a stereotype (about your gender or other piece of your identity) negatively affects how you behaved? What was the stereotype, and what’s a specific time it affected your behavior?
Women face many obstacles on their path to leadership, but internal barriers, such as insecurity, can alter their behavior and make workplace success even more difficult.
To illustrate this, Sandberg recounts a meeting in a conference room. The only four women present sat in chairs behind the table. Sandberg beckoned them over, but they waved her off. Later, she explained that they should have been at the table; they were part of the discussion, not observers. The women were surprised and agreed. It hadn’t occurred to them to sit at the big table. They held themselves back, literally watching from the sidelines, due to insecurity.
This self-doubt women carry is called “impostor syndrome.” They feel like impostors inside, as if at any moment they’ll be revealed as frauds. When praised, they feel undeserving and guilty, like a mistake has been made.
Despite her qualifications, even Sandberg has been affected by impostor syndrome. She arrived at Harvard unprepared for its academic rigor and soon felt lost, not as smart as everyone else -- a fraud. Through hard work she excelled, but she could never shake this nagging self-doubt.
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Some people, like the women at Sandberg’s conference who sat behind the main table, don’t even realize that their actions stem from insecurity. It just felt normal to sit as an observer. Do you similarly betray a lack of confidence in the work setting?
Do you recall a time when you took a periphery position in a work situation, and prevented yourself from actively participating? Did it bother you then or did it feel normal?
The 2003 “Heidi/Howard” study tested perceptions of women and men in the workforce. Participants in one group got a case study of an entrepreneur named Heidi, detailing her “outgoing personality” and powerful network. A second group got the same profile, but with “Heidi” renamed “Howard.” Both groups were asked to give their impression of the entrepreneur.
The students respected Heidi and Howard equally, but gave Howard greater likeability scores. They found Howard more appealing than Heidi, though it was the same story. The same data created different impressions depending on which gender it cited. Heidi was seen as selfish; Howard was seen as appealing.
This study demonstrates the difference between likeability and success for men and women. The more successful a man is, the greater his likeability. The more successful a woman is, the worse her likeability.
Why is this? Professional achievement is considered a “male” attribute. If a man is high-achieving, it’s normal. If a woman is highly successful, she is seen as pushy, unlikeable and unfeminine. This reflects traditional gender stereotypes: males are...
Do you harbor some biases you don’t even know about?
Have you ever viewed a woman in a leadership position negatively? What are the qualities she exhibited that made you dislike her?
Now that women are aware it’s ok to be ambitious, how should they plan for their career trajectory?
Times have changed since Sandberg’s grandmother worked. The “ladder to success,” where people join a company and spend years moving up to higher positions, isn’t today’s reality, where people have an average of 11 jobs from age 18-46.
Jungle gyms are a much better metaphor for a successful career, symbolizing creative exploration, more risks, and many ways to get to the top.
While a career path doesn’t need to be mapped out, setting two types of plans is key:
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Become a stronger leadership candidate.
Sandberg advises women to figure out their long-term dream to provide direction for their goals. Her long-term dream was simply “making the world better.” What is your long-term dream?
Having a mentor is critical for career progression. While men have an easy time finding and maintaining mentor relationships, women do not. Women tend to take a more active approach to find a mentor, even trying to chase and force a mentor connection. They know the stakes are high and their chances of achieving skyrocket with a well-placed mentor.
But Sandberg counters that women have it backwards. A mentorship connection has to develop naturally. Studies show that mentors select mentees based on performance and potential. Instead of trying to find a mentor who will lead them toward success, women should excel first, get noticed, then allow an organic mentor relationship to develop.
It’s not, “Get a mentor and you’ll excel.” It’s, “Excel and you’ll get a mentor.”
To find and develop a mentor relationship, understand that approaching someone and asking, “Will you be my mentor?” does not work. But approaching someone with a well-thought-out inquiry could spark a discussion and a relationship.
For example, Sandberg often gets vague, general...
A mentor can offer invaluable guidance on your career journey, but the relationship has to develop organically.
Is there a senior-level executive you greatly admire, and whose advice you’d love to get? Can you grab a few minutes of their time after a meeting? What thoughtful question would you ask this person?
Honest, authentic communication in the workplace is critical for professional relationships and career growth. If you don’t have authentic communication, bad situations (such as unfit managers) don’t get better because what’s really happening never comes to light.
But being truthful at work is tricky. Adults have been conditioned to be appropriate and polite, protecting themselves. The hierarchical structure of a workplace means someone is always above you, watching and rating your performance, so people in low-power positions are less likely to speak up.
For women in particular communicating honestly can be a landmine. They don’t want to be seen as not a team player. They don’t want to appear negative or critical. Plus, women carry the fear of calling attention to themselves, which hearkens back to “impostor syndrome.”
The best communication is where opinions are shared freely but feelings aren’t hurt. It’s being “delicately honest” as opposed to “brutally honest,” understanding that you have your truth and the other person has their truth.
One tool of effective communications is stating your opinion as opposed to stating a fact. For...
An all-business approach at work may not always be the best course of business.
Think of a time when you became emotional in the workplace. What prompted your emotions, and how were they received by others? Were you showed compassion? Do others react poorly?
From childhood, girls get the message that they’ll someday have to choose between motherhood and their job. Studies show they are already considering the work/parenthood tradeoffs by college. While planning ahead is good, when women plan too far ahead, they stop reaching for opportunities.
Women leave the workforce slowly, making small decisions along the way to account for future husbands and children. They “leave before they leave,” refusing promotions, not taking risks, and making decisions to account for children who aren’t here yet. This mental preparation for a family can occur years before the family materializes.
When a woman leans back in preparation for a family, she lands in a different place in her career than if she had continued to pursue challenges and opportunities. She ends up in a job that’s less demanding, but not as rewarding or fulfilling.
When she re-enters the workforce after having a child, she returns...
Decisions with the best intentions may hurt a woman’s desire to be a working mom.
Has there been an opportunity you didn’t take because you feared it would hurt your family or future family? Do you think the decision held you back from anything?
In the last 30 years, as imperfect as it is, women have made more strides in the workplace than the home, where lopsided gender roles still prevail. Data shows that when both spouses work full time, mom does 40% more childcare and 30% more housework than dad. (Same-sex partners tend to divide household tasks more equally.)
Even the U.S. Census Bureau calls mothers the “designated parent,” while a father caring for his children is called a “child care arrangement.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. With knowledge and effort, dads can contribute equally to the home and childcare. For women to succeed at work, and men to succeed at home, traditional roles must be challenged.
Women with partners are more successful in the workforce. A majority of female business leaders have partners to whom they attribute their success. Conversely, 60% of women who left the paid workforce cited their husbands’ lack of participation in childcare and home duties as a direct cause.
Equitable parenting benefits the children. Kids with involved, loving dads have better cognitive abilities, a greater sense of well-being, lower...
Are you guilty of maternal gatekeeping?
Sandberg cautions women to guard against the tendency toward controlling their partner’s child care contributions. Are you guilty of this? Think of some ways you may have unintentionally undermined your partner’s parental involvement.
“Having it all” -- a perfect balance of a rewarding career, great marriage, and happy children -- is a myth that women have been taught to believe is possible. You can pursue a professional life and a personal life, but it won’t be perfect and it will require adjustments, compromises and sacrifices every day -- whether you are working by choice or necessity.
Women, not men, constantly get asked, “How do you juggle it all”? This question implies, “You have to be messing something up,” feeding on women’s feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
When women feel they are not achieving perfection at home and work, they may end up leaving the workforce. Trying to do it all perfectly is a recipe for disappointment.
A better approach is to identify the real priorities at home and work. Be a perfectionist only in things that demand it, and for the rest, aim for “sustainable and fulfilling” instead of “perfection.”
There is certainly no perfection possible in parenting. You can’t prepare for its constant, surprising challenges and variables. Facebook has a prominent sign that offers great advice for moms in and out of the workforce: “Done is better...
Are you letting a quest for perfection derail your progress?
A sign hangs in the halls of Facebook saying, “Done Is Better Than Perfect.” In your current work duties, what needs to be perfect? What needs to just get accomplished? Which one will you focus on?
True equality can be achieved only when more women are in leadership positions. To get more women in these roles, men and women alike have to understand the biases and stereotypes that have been perpetuating the status quo.
It’s time for everyone to cheer on girls who want to sit at the table and lean in to their careers. Men, too, need to be supported and respected for contributing within the home and supporting their partners.
For gender equality to prevail, women have to stop sabotaging other women. When women turn on other women, we all lose. Women need to support and stick up for women in order for true equality to prosper.
For example, when Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo and announced she’d be taking just a few weeks maternity leave, which she would work through, she was roundly criticized by women for setting unreasonable expectations. Her individual choice was not respected.
The “Queen Bee” phenomenon still exists. **Women in power often discourage other women from gaining power, as if there’s...
Let’s support the choices of other women, especially when they differ from our own.
Has another woman ever sabotaged you, whether at work or as a mother? What happened? How did it make you feel?
This book was published in 2011. Are things better for women today?
In your work life, has anything significantly changed from the situation Sandberg describes in 2011? For example, does your company have more inclusive family leave policies for moms and dads? Are female leaders seen as more acceptable?