I recently sat down with Sheryl Sandberg (and over 700 other ladies) at a Trib Nation event for a candid conversation about what it means to be a woman in the workplace, and the issues that plague gender equality. Admittedly, I arrived carrying a healthy dose of skepticism for the Facebook COO, whose name has been the target of recent media backlash. While some revere Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, as a modern day feminist battle cry, others say she’s far too accusatory and lacks empathy towards our nation’s “average” woman. I myself questioned her relatability as a twice-educated Harvard graduate with an executive salary and a tech famous husband.
Regardless, I always enjoy a little cause célèbre. As I took my seat in the sprawling Grand Ballroom of the Palmer House in Chicago, I was all ears. Show me what you’ve got, Sandberg.
What followed? So many truths.
Truth #1: The ambition gap exists, and it’s deep rooted.
One of the major criticisms of Lean In is Sandberg’s blanketed assertion that women have lackluster ambition in the workplace. The difference between a man’s desire to achieve upward career mobility and a woman’s is what Sandberg refers to as the ambition gap. It’s an unequivocal imbalance between men and women’s professional aspirations to reach top-level positions. Somewhat offensive, right? Only she’s not wrong.
We know this gap doesn’t apply to every woman and that C-suite positions are not at the end of everyone’s rainbows, but Sandberg is right to recognize is root of this imbalance.
At a young age, little girls are taught that their assertiveness is unappreciated. The fact that outspoken girls are often called “bossy”, yet boys who demonstrate the same behavior are regarded as “kings of the hill,” says it all. “I wrote this book,” Sandberg said, “for every little girl who was called bossy on the playground.” Immediately, the collective energy in the room shifted and hundreds of Oprah-like “Aha!” moments ensued.
This resonated. It resonated hard. At an early age, we skip out on opportunities, sit towards the back of the room, don’t speak our minds, and don’t lean in out of fear being called bossy. Well, Sandberg is here to say that we’re not doing ourselves any favors, ladies. With so much apprehension and doubt, how can we possibly see ourselves on the same field as men? Moreover, are we even playing the same sport?
Truth #2: Women are not taking the credit where credit is due.
Ask men how they got to where they are, and they’ll most likely attribute their success to their personalities, brains, and brawn. Ask a woman how she achieved success, and she’ll usually attribute it to being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, and working hard. The difference? Men take the credit, while women pass it along. It may seem like the humble thing to do, but Sandberg says it’s for this reason that only 21 Fortune 500 companies are lead by females. “As women, we need to reach for opportunities when they are offered, not when we think we can handle them.”
So ladies, here it is. You got to where you are today because you are smart, skillful, and damnit, people like you and believe in you. You’ll get to where you’re going tomorrow for the very same reasons. We need to start taking ownership of our own past, present, and future successes. We constantly need to be leaning in if we want to bridge the gap.
Truth #3: There’s not enough to go around.
Early on in the evening, Sandberg asked the audience to picture the following scenarios: (1) What does it look like when two men are having a drink at a bar? (2) What does it look like when a man and woman are having a drink at a bar? And lastly, (3) what does it look like when an older man and a younger woman are having a drink at a bar?
You tell me which one looks most like mentorship and which one looks like a questionable escapade.
Truth be told, we all need mentors. Another truth be told, there aren’t enough women in power positions to mentor the next generation of female leaders. What does this mean? Rather than wait for a mentor like a damsel in distress waits for her knight in shining armor, women (and men) need to start taking action. You’ll only find a mentor when you start engaging with substance. Asking questions, taking initiative, leaning in. “Men should really view it as a badge of honor to mentor women. They’re the next generation of leaders,” Sandberg says. Additionally, women need to start taking notes from men—to learn from their assertiveness and seize moments. Consider that great female leaders of our time had both women and men to guide them to where they are now.
Truth #4: Achievement is greater when you’re not afraid
I held my head a little higher when I walked out of that room. One of Sandberg’s lasting questions was, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I consider myself to be an ambitious woman, but I also know where my insecurities lie. I know that I accept challenge when I think there is a high probability of success, I go into all-male meetings with irrational jitters, and I’m far too aware that I bite my tongue when I should speak up. I also know that some of my greatest accomplishments to date are a result of my fearlessness.
Sandberg’s words have sparked an unapologetic conversation about inequality. She’s taken an introspective look at what we as women are not doing well, and what we need to collectively work on as a society. What did Sheryl Sandberg do when she wasn’t afraid? She wrote a book and ignited a movement.
Well played, Sandberg. Make room, Steinem. You’ve got another voice at the podium.