I want to be liked. Who doesn’t?
But, I’ve always been “bossy.” The girl organizing everything from the playground right on up. And bossy is not nice. Sheryl Sandberg is the same way.
Reading Lean In was fast, rewarding and surprisingly resonant. With candor, insight and an unexpected depth of endnotes, Sandberg explores women in leadership – confirming many inequalities and struggles I know are present, but have somehow recently forgotten.
Along the way I also felt an amazing internal, visceral response to many of her anecdotes and data, putting some recent workplace run-ins in a new light.
Being a female manager – albeit in a small town, at a small nonprofit, which is its own unique problem snowflake – I am constantly taken aback at how personal critiques of my work can be, and from surprising sources.
I’ve been called mean, too decisive (sidenote: how is that even a thing?), and downright bitchy (that one was behind my back).
Usually I can take it – someone has to drive this bus – but Sandberg’s own experiences put these slights into glaring, uncomfortable and realistic light.
Even though my feminist upbringing gave me a lens to see gender discrimination, I’ve also internalized social attitudes toward me (as a woman) and exercising my (appropriate) power in certain situations as somehow my fault. If they say I’m mean, it must be true – not that I’m just doing my job.
Through observation, I know that my employees and volunteers do not treat men like they treat me. Somehow, I am a combination threat and little child (we’ll let that one lie and chalk it up to ageism – all the isms!).
And you know what? It’s mostly by older women.
Women who had to struggle much harder in the workplace with assumptions regarding their capacity than I ever have. My biggest ally, and actually the first person to point out their behavior to me as maybe not about me, is male.
Whatever the comment, I try to brush it off, assuming I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Which is true, but this is a pretty big fish.
As Sandberg outlines, women all too often tear down other women, helping along a societal standard of few women in leadership that doesn’t really need much help perpetuating itself.
The source could be a co-worker, friend or boss, but violating stereotypical visions of women (subservient, ever-helpful, pliable, etc.) usually backfires. “For men, professional success comes with positive reinforcement at every step of the way. For women, even when they’re recognized for their achievements, they’re often regarded unfavorably.”
And often, the backlash really hurts. Sandberg tries to transform this into an empowered moment: “[I allow] myself to feel upset, even really upset, and then move on – that’s something I can do.”
She doesn’t encourage ignoring these feelings, but recognizing them as real, valid – but ultimately with no bearing on our internal and external ability to succeed.
Sandberg is reaching toward a future where anyone and everyone is truly empowered to live out their own choices, not to feel pressured one way or another by a specific experience or structural limitations (Did you know there’s pregnancy parking at Google because of Sandberg? I do. She mentioned it like five times).
“True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed…Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection. This shift is good news for women, who often feel obliged to suppress their emotions in the workplace in an attempt to come across as more stereotypically male. And it’s also good news for men, who may be doing the exact same thing.”
Sandberg freely admits that her perspective is one of privilege, and I scoffed out loud when she thanked Oprah for her texts in the Acknowledgements, but her insight was invaluable to me.
Just as she outlines, I too want a freer, more equitable leadership model. One where little girls are validated for their assertiveness, rather than shut down; where decisive, powerful women are not written off as bitches; and where we all get rewarded and criticized equally.