Sorry, Not Sorry - The Time Has Come For Me To "Lean In"

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Well, I am sometimes late to the party. Yes, I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s best selling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in late spring 2013. The book by the Facebook COO sparked a lot of controversy among both men and women. But, it has also sparked a new movement that I hesitate to call feminist. I have spent nearly my whole life in male-dominated arenas — math club, MIT, business, and business academia. I have always shunned the feminist label, or pretty much anything touched with the feminist wand. My thinking was that women are just as good as men and we will prove it through our actions, not by being strident and asking for attention or help. But after nearly 30 years trying to prove it (and being somewhat successful), I’m ready to admit that it has been a lot harder than it sounds.

So last December, I attended my first Linking Indy Women event. It was a holiday party at Monarch Beverage hosted by Natalie Roberts, the Senior VP of Strategy who was going to share the company's experiences of exploring the Lean In concepts. I think of beer and wine wholesaling as a male-dominated business, so I was surprised there was a senior leader who was a woman and that Monarch had enough women to worry about these issues.

It turns out that Monarch wants to attract more women to the business, so creating a workplace culture that values them is an important initiative. Their enthusiastic embracement of this book made me think that maybe I ought to read it, too. So, I did. Okay, it took me 6 months to get to it. But, that should not be surprising given the number of classes I teach in the spring.

What struck me early in the book is the amount of data and research that Sandberg uses to explore women in the workforce. Here are a few key pieces that got me thinking:

  1. Women haven’t gotten to positions of leadership. Women are nearly 60% of college graduates (actually 57% of undergrads and 63% of master's degrees) but still less than 20% of leaders in businesses, government, and boards of directors. Female college graduates have outnumbered males since 1978.
  2. Wage gap has made little progress. In 1970, women made 59 cents for every dollar a man made. By 2010, this had increased to 77 cents. That’s 18 cents in 40 years!
  3. Performance evaluations of women are tougher. Both women and men rate women’s performance lower than men’s, even when objectively it was better.
  4. The criteria for evaluating men and women differ. Men are evaluated on their potential, but women on their accomplishments. The most disconcerting aspect of this is that people who say they are not gender-biased in the evaluations are more likely to shift their evaluation criteria when gender changes. They don’t even realize they are biased.
  5. Success for women leads to dislike. Successful men are well-liked. Successful women are not as likable — by either women or men. A Harvard study described the accomplishments of an entrepreneur exactly the same, describing one as Howard and the other as Heidi. Heidi was “not the kind of person you want to hire or work for.”
  6. Women asking for something need to avoid looking selfish. Women who frame their requests on their own behalf look selfish, when they are expected to be nurturing. The same request framed as helping others, or for the common good, is more likely to be accepted.
  7. Women don’t even want to be leaders or think they should be. Study after study shows that starting as early as middle school, women are less likely to say they want to be a CEO or government leader than men. Moreover, men are two- to three-times more likely to believe they are qualified to lead.
  8. Stepping off the career path for motherhood leads to income decline. Women lose 20% of income after one year out of the workforce and more than 30% if they stay out for two or more years.

These are pretty scary facts to me. The bottom line is that women don’t believe they should lead, don’t want to lead, and don’t want to be disliked if they are in fact successful. This is a systematic problem for all of us — women and men. Many studies also show the positives of having women in leadership positions, so it’s a desirable outcome.

I’m not sure what the solution is. I think the first step is to acknowledge the facts and think about what we can do to change them. Personally, I’m going to keep mentoring women (and men) one by one. This fall, Julie Manning Magid, Mary Johnson and I started a Lean In Circle for women who were entering the Evening MBA program. It has grown to include women from other cohorts, as well as alumni. We are excited to be able to have these important conversations on a regular basis.

I will also continue to share these facts with my classes. I’m going to work with organizations like Linking Indy Women to share their stories of success and inspire each other. I encourage everyone to check out the ad from the Pantene #ShineStrong initiative — it’s called “Not Sorry” and it encourages women not to apologize before asking something. See what you think.

On November 20, Kelley Dean Idie Kesner will be one of the keynote speakers at the local 2020 Women on Boards "National Conversation on Board Diversity" event. The national campaign is dedicated to increasing the percentage of women on U.S. company boards to 20% or greater by 2020. Mark your calendars and join the discussion.

Oh, and follow Linking Indy Women on Twitter so you can join in the conversation.