The question isn’t whether or not to lean in – It’s who are you when you do?


The issue isn’t whether or not to lean in.
It’s who you are when you do.

There’s been a flurry of media attention in the last few months surrounding the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, followed by a fabulous opinion piece in The NY Times and then an interview with former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan on “Rock Center with Brian Williams.”

As a result,  several of my friends, knowing my interest in leadership, have asked me what I think about all of it.

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So I finally sat down to pen a few thoughts based on my own experiences, as well as those of so many women I know.

Rather than debating the controversial question for many about whether or not women should lean in (I think both Callan and Sandberg offer great points, but in the end, it’s an individual choice and no one can tell you which to choose), I’d like to focus on something that specifically struck a cord with me.

sheryl sandbergOn NPR’s Morning Edition, Sandberg talked about stereotype threat. She explained that the more we’re aware of the stereotypes out there for women, the more we act in accordance with them.

For example, if stereotypically, we believe girls won’t be or aren’t supposed to be good at math, then they usually aren’t.

But it’s more than a question of who’s good at math.

I’ve watched this phenomena happen over and over again in the workplace. Having spent a lot of my career working at faith-based organizations, I came face-to-face often with a particular stereotype that says women should be soft-spoken, demure and not challenge authority. Especially when the authority is a man.

Women who ask questions, women who speak up, women who don’t fit the mold, and women who think critically are often perceived to be difficult. Even trouble.

And it makes us all act differently. I remember being surprised when I began to notice it myself. I was so aware of the expectations at my workplace for how a woman should act, that I began to fulfill those expectations in a lot of ways that were not true to who I was.

quote lean in

I began to talk less in certain meetings. I often didn’t feel at liberty to ask hard questions. I soft-pedaled who I really was. And I often found myself deferring to the men in the room because I felt it was the expectation for a young woman in my environment to do so in order to be liked.

When I began to notice my actions, I reflected on how I was raised in order to figure out where it was coming from. The crazy thing is I was never taught that a woman should act differently around a man. And I certainly wasn’t told that men had better answers than women, or that women should defer to them. My mom is an extremely strong woman, and she certainly didn’t model that for me. So where was it coming from?

When Sandberg talked about stereotype threat, a light bulb flickered on. I now believe that’s probably the answer.

So what can we do about it?

by Victor 1558

I think one way to counteract the tendency for us to adapt to stereotypes in our own particular work cultures is for young women to begin to see examples of other women who don’t bend to those stereotypes. For more seasoned women leaders to begin modeling what it means to lead in full confidence of their talents.

When I think back to my own experiences, I know that if I had seen even one other woman leader acting confidently in the room, I would have felt more at liberty be myself. Unfortunately, most of the time I didn’t. And regrettably, I often wasn’t modeling it for anyone either.

As women, we need to begin carrying ourselves with confidence and making choices unencumbered by gender. And we must choose to support other women in this same way, especially those who are younger than us.

It’s not just up to the women. MEN have a role, too.

NAVFACLet’s go back to some of those meetings I discussed earlier.

I wonder what they would have been like if the men in the room had expected me to be exactly who I was. If they had expected that I’d bring my A-game, complete with confidence (and my questions!) to the table in order to help solve problems as a team. And finally, what if they had expected every other man in the room to act the same way? What a different meeting that would have been. (Note: a big shout-out and thank you to those men who already do this!)
And so, I believe the challenge isn’t just for women. Men play a crucial role as well. Sandberg said, “Companies that use the full talents of everyone — those companies do better.”

Together, by bringing the FULL talents of both men and women to the table, I believe we can create better solutions for our organizations. And better work environments for us all.

So for my friends out there who solicited my thoughts about Lean In, this is it: 

The real question for me

isn’t whether or not you lean in.

It’s who are you when you do?






photo credits: NAVFAC & Victor 1558