Saturday, February 8, 2014

Facebook chief recommends us to “Lean In”

You know when a book has made an impact when it is regularly referred to in the media and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has defiantly made a splash. Lean In got people talking about the progress that women have made in society and why there is so far to go.

Coming from some who Popular Culture would describe as having “made it” she offers words of advice and encourages us to lean in and to actively take part in their career, take risks and make their dreams happen.

While Sandberg does quote research and goes in to data quite deeply to back up her arguments, I want to provide a highlight of the parts of her book that I found especially interesting rather than a synopsis.

She believes that an equal world has an equal division of women running our businesses and half of men running our homes.

One of the ideas from the book is if women are prevented from fully participating (though barriers to in society then the whole of society does not benefit from their skills and expertise and is ultimately poorer as a result.

The opening chapter of the book gives the context in which women operate, regardless of where we are in the world. A lot of things are different but the strength of the patriarchy is almost universal even though in western countries it is a lot more subtle.

She reminds us of the issues that many women face in other parts of the world and that, in many ways we are so much more privileged than Women in Sudan and Afghanistan.  Most of us are able to gain good levels of education, we are able to vote, we are not considered the property of our husbands, etc. 

While the politics of women can help women in other cultures is another discussion, this book is deliberately aimed at women in The West and especially those working in the middle and upper echelon of the knowledge economy.

What I found interesting was her study of the reality compared to the myths or narratives that are present in society.

For example, generation X and Y were raised with an increasing sense of equality with their bothers and we soon saw that girls of this generation excelled academically. But as soon as these generations left environments that Sandberg describes that encouraged behaviour including “raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on”.

This is one of the challenges that act as a central theme of Sandberg’s book. She argues that ‘Career progression often depends on taking risks and advocating for oneself – traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting’. So the skills girls were using to their advantage during secondary school works against them in the work force.

This idea of advocating for yourself, being ambitious with what you want to do with your life and not lowering expectations are key arguments of the book. Sandberg stresses that these traits are important in increasing women’s participation in business, government and civil society.       

One of Sandberg’s ideas that I found especially interesting was the “stereotype threat”. While this is not necessarily a new idea, this threat is when members of a group begin to be aware of negative stereotypes that society has placed on them. The effect is that they start to live the narrative or as Sandberg puts it ‘are more likely to perform according to the stereotype’.

So when women are told that they are less good at maths, leadership or combining a successful career with a family, they are less likely to pursue careers which require maths, apply for leadership positions or continue to pursue their careers goals while caring for a family. Why would you bother applying for a course at university that requires advanced skills in maths if you’ve always been told you’re bad at it?

I totally agree with Sandberg when she argues that we ‘need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers’.

Finally, I thought Sandberg’s chapter on mentoring really interesting. In a nutshell, she argues that while mentoring is the key to success, society looks at it the wrong way around.

Instead of thinking that getting a mentor will make you successful, Sandberg argues that excel, become successful and you will get a mentor that will work with you to get to the next level.   

Her argument is as follows; mentors select mentorees based on past success. They are more likely to invest in individual whose talent is obvious and has a successful track record.

It make sense that successful people further up the career chain want to invest in people that are like them rather than those who have yet to prove themselves.   

She points out that asking a business, community or political leader out of the blue rarely works but in reality such relationships happen organically benefits both parties.

This is a powerful book with much to think about. Lean In inspired me to think big and be an active participant in my dreams and goals, both professionally and personally.   It reminded me that it is up to me to make things happen and not to sit back and wait for things to happen for me. 

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