We know the importance of increasing the number of women in leadership roles. When I work with organizations on building inclusive, productive workplaces, it is clear that the distinct insights and perspectives of women are essential for mission success, whether in corporations, non-profits or government. News reports are already pointing to a shift toward more collaboration in the U.S. Senate because of the record number of 20 female senators (still far too few).
Into this walks Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, with a book that quickly became a global blockbuster, Lean In, and – kudos to her – a foundation and website to keep the message going. She looked at the issue at its root: women themselves. She’s telling women of all ages to Lean In. Don’t sit back at that meeting – participate, engage, show your expertise and your knowledge.
While some have attacked her for blaming women for challenges they face, it’s hard to do that after you hear her speak. She’s one of us. She worked hard to get where she is and she has made mistakes. She has a family and she wants a life outside of work. She sees her position of privilege, which some have criticized, as an obligation to speak out for all women. I think she is authentic and caring and smart – and right on.
Let’s compare Sandberg to Margaret Thatcher for a moment. Thatcher is being lauded, appropriately, as a female role model who was that Iron Lady, the one that the Soviets feared. She was hard-nosed and focused. Did she Lean In? To gain her own prominence, she sure did. Unfortunately, she didn’t do much to raise other women with her, another element of Leaning In. In addition to Thatcher’s anti-feminism rhetoric, stories abound how she basically ignored the women around her and instead focused on dealing with the men. That’s a far different story than what you hear about Sonia Sotomayor or Hillary Clinton – or Sheryl Sandberg.
Rather than ignoring the women around her, Sandberg identified ways that women can enhance their own careers, and their lives. She asserts that women need to be their own advocates, just as men are. Women tend to demur to the team or to those who helped them, rather than talk about how the leader motivated that great team or how she took that advice and turned it into something powerful. Is it ladylike to act that way? Just think about how loaded that term is and you get Sandberg’s point!
In fact, our language is filled with messages that we send females from an early age. We call young girls “bossy,” while you rarely hear a little boy called that. That hit home with this grown-up bossy little girl. Tina Fey talks about it in her book, BossyPants. And, we do have to be aware research shows that women become less “likeable” as they show strength and prowess. (Need I mention the names that Hillary Clinton is called?) Long ago, I learned you are probably not going to be voted Miss Congeniality if you are a decisive and strong woman, but you can earn respect that gets you pretty far. I just wish Thatcher had used her strength and respect to elevate other women like herself.
Another piece of Sandberg’s advice rang very true to me. It was similar to advice I got many years ago when I was pregnant with my second child. I spoke with my boss Marilee, a powerhouse single woman a few years older than me, about my desire to work on special projects for the administrator of our Federal agency part-time, moving from my job as manager of a large staff. I wanted to stay actively involved in the agency, but in a different capacity for a while. I would be creating an interesting job that didn’t exist.
Marilee was very supportive, providing the type of mentorship that Thatcher eschewed. Marilee helped me develop a winning strategy. “Don’t go into the administrator’s office and talk from the perspective of what you want,” she said. “Tell him how this will benefit him and the agency.”
With Marilee’s advice, I was able to negotiate exactly what I wanted. I crafted my message in a way that highlighted my value and portrayed the new position I wanted as a positive for the agency, not just something for me. He asked me exactly what I was requesting and I responded with my bargaining position. This hard-hitting leader accepted it without a counter offer. Win/win for the agency and me. I got to work on exciting projects and my long-term career never faltered. I got to choose what I wanted to do, on my terms.
I have shared Marilee’s advice many times. Just like Sandberg’s, the message is that women need to understand the mission of organization, be engaged in it, and believe in their value to that mission. Be proud to share what you mean to your boss and the organization. This can put you a strong position to get what you want in business and in life.
Sheryl Sandberg, I believe you are a leader for our times. Margaret Thatcher made her mark, but it was largely for herself. Your message can benefit women of every generation in the workplace. Let’s Lean In together.