The Inequality of Leaning Out

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Sheryl Sandberg, in her groundbreaking book, Lean In, explores the inequalities of the women-to-men ratios in the workplace in terms of leadership. Women not only face institutional barriers, but a battle from within. Sandberg gave a TEDtalk on how women hold themselves back, literally choosing to watch from the sidelines, and from this, Lean In was born.

In other words, many women did not sit at the main conference table, but instead chose to sit in chairs on the sides. I have done this earlier in my career, feeling slightly unequal to others in the room who had more experience than I. The same phenomenon happens in the classroom in higher education, where women, including myself, either timidly raised their hands to answer a question or did not even try. I knew I had the answer, but I was afraid that it may come out wrong. However the men in the room would eagerly share their opinions, right or wrong, and would be “hailed” by the professor as forward thinking or confident.

This pervasive attitude holds women back, and women, rather than appearing too bold, or possibly having to “own up” to being an imposter, willingly hold themselves back. Sandberg says that women hold themselves back because they are afraid of being disliked, and the negative term “bossy” is thrown about. Sandberg launched a media campaign called “Ban Bossy,” which has ignited a firestorm of praise and ridicule.

Sandberg also states that many women feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments, brushing the compliment off as “just lucky” or had help from others. I almost cried when I read this because, finally, someone has just articulated what I have felt all along.

In my mid-50s I am realizing how I have held myself back and I make damn sure the women in my work team are encouraged and are “leaning in.” Recently, a colleague told me how another colleague had brought some of his work team with him to a meeting. The women in the group immediately sat in the chairs along the wall. He stood up and told them all to sit at the table! Bravo!

If you are interested in reading more, Lean In is an excellent book! In fact, worldwide, Lean In Circles are forming in workplaces, where women (and men) can discuss the book and its concepts for encouraging leadership in women. I ran into this article at work today, “Having More Women Leaders is Good for Business.”
Also, I have blogged about some of these topics in my Professional Development page.

Let’s work together to cultivate and build the capacity of current and next generations of women leaders.

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17 thoughts on “The Inequality of Leaning Out

  1. Excellent post. I read her book and attentively follow her actions.
    I wonder why she – who could be a CEO anywhere – accepts to be the second in command at FB…
    I read all her arguments about it but still think that she should have gone for it to give more credit to her mantra.
    All that she mentions as women’s workplace reality, is commonly observed in many countries.
    I have witnessed that everywhere I worked. Those who don’t conform to the pattern are criticized by the women themselves.
    This is a complex theme, as it is also influenced by specific cultures.
    I believe that we have to be authentic, and that includes to not allow ourselves to be intimidated by louder and proactive men.
    She’s a point and deserves my respect.

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    • thanks, Lucile! You are right, it is a very complex theme, and really hard to capture in a blog post 🙂 And isn’t it amazing how other women can be the most critical? I appreciate you taking the time to comment! Will I see you in Blogging 201?

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  2. Very timely post. I work in municipal government and the staff have been invited to watch the film 25%, which is a documentary about the UN’s minimum standard for representation by women in democratic governments (the standard is 30% and, in Canada, active participation by women as representatives in government is just 25%).

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the read! Well done.

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    • Thank you,Chris! Government work is even harder on women even though some organizations have more women in leadership positions. I sometimes think women are smarter and just say, “Fuggedabouttit, I’m not going to take on this much stress! That is my tactic at this point in life and why I am retiring before I get eaten alive 🙂

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  3. Where was all this awareness when I was still in the corporate world? 🙂 too often do we fall back, allowing men to take credit for our efforts because, well, we felt uncomfortable being in the limelight because it just wasn’t done. It takes posts like yours to remind, not just women, but the world in general of the biased circumstance. Hopefully, given time and frequent reminders, the situation will shift. I remain hopeful 🙂

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  4. I’ve been fortunate in my life so far in that I’ve never once felt the need to hold back or defer to the men in the room. I would always sit up the front in lecture halls and throw my opinions and answers in to group discussions. The few times I have faced discrimination from men I’ve just been bemused by the situation and either carried on regardless or simply walked away if it was clear they were too set in their opinions (life is too short to bang your head against every brick wall). I doubt I would last long in a corporate environment before I either stepped on too many toes or quit in exasperation!

    Screw leaning! Just jump right in to the middle of the table and own it, I say. 🙂

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  5. My grown daughter has this book. Sounds like I need to borrow it. I am a nurse, though, and my “higher ups” are the physicians, a largely male population in my work setting. I’ll need to carefully figure out how to apply the principle. I need to also respect the difference in accountability of patient care decisions. All thoughts appreciated on this !

    Liked by 1 person

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