After a few decades of Girl Power, do women still need help asserting themselves in the workplace? If you look at the the low percentages of women in powerful positions in corporations, the answer appears to be yes.
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is all about encouraging women to take on challenges, take risks, and believe in themselves. She caused a stir among professional women with her 2010 TED Talk about how women take themselves out of the important conversations at the workplace and out of the running for upper-management positions. Now she has a new book out called “Lean In,” which is all about encouraging women to be confident in pursuing their ambitions.
Along with the book comes a new website, LeanIn.org, which includes stories from women who “leaned in” to a challenge. They overcame self-doubt, learned to appreciate their own power and talents, and succeeded.
For the most part, these are not women who overcame adversity to get where they are. They are smart, talented, educated women who tell the stories of when they needed a push, internal or external, to tackle a new challenge. The message throughout is, “Go for it.”
These are the sorts of stories you want your young daughter to read to remind her that yes, girls can do anything. But if you’re already a grown-up, pursuing a career and possibly raising a family, there’s not a lot of meat here.
The stories on LeanIn.org are short – and I am a big fan of short. To paraphrase Shakespeare, brevity is the soul of wit and wisdom.
But a piece can be so brief it loses its soul. Caroline Ferdinandsen tells the story of sacrificing time with her family in order to write her first book. “It hurt my family at times,” she admits. But she doesn’t tell us how her choices affected her husband and children. Alex Marren, senior vice president for United Airlines, talks about learning that she’s good in a crisis, but if she faced any challenges taking a leadership role in the male-dominated airline industry, we don’t hear about it.
The stories are so tightly focused on that “lean in” moment that they seem disconnected from reality. Aggressively pursuing career goals can have costs, and the true challenges are in the day-to-day decisions we make.
But that needed depth may come as LeanIn.org grows. The site provides tools for women to create Circles – “like a book club focused on helping members achieve their goals” – and it asks women to share their “leaning in” stories. Jessica Bennett, a writer and editor, hosted a circle and discovered that her “less MBA-inclined network” craved the opportunity to talk about their professional challenges with other women:
The novelty of Lean In is that for many young women, it’s put words to what we’d long felt but couldn’t quite articulate; the insecurities, the self-doubt, the fear that causes us to keep our hands down. Because, whether we’d recognized it or not, each of us reared in the Girl Power era of the eighties had been grappling with precisely what Sandberg aims to conquer. How do we act with authority without being perceived as bossy? What if we aren’t ready to risk questioning the status quo, if it means setting ourselves back? How can we figure out a way to work within the system, while at the same time acknowledging its flaws?
Right now, LeanIn.org is a great source for inspiration, not answers. But it has the potential to become more. Regina Wallace-Jones, who started a new job while pregnant and did so well keeping engaged during her maternity leave that she was promoted shortly after she returned to work, sums up both her struggles and the potential for the site beautifully:
There is no perfect way to juggle children and work. … [T]o be honest, I often feel extremely scattered, and I need external voices to continue to reassure me that thriving in this journey is possible. This is in part the promise of Lean In. The end state will be collections of capable professionals around the world, who encourage each other with tangible methods to cope and thrive in the work of achieving our professional destiny. If we can orient each other to leaning in when we would otherwise make a different choice, then we can start to affect the stagnant growth of women in senior leadership roles.
Sandberg is getting both praise and flack for her book and website. For some women, it offers too simple answers to life’s complexities. But for others, LeanIn.org may offer the inspiration they need to overcome the obstacles they’ve put in their own way.