“Who Wears a Tiara on a Jungle Gym?”: Why I’m Excited About Leaning In

“Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.” – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women and the Will to Lead

When I saw the first promotional article about an upcoming book on women and work from the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, I was very excited. I pre-ordered a Kindle edition. And as I waited for the launch date of Lean In: Women and the Will to Lead, I saw lots more articles, many of them vehemently stating that, one way or another, Sheryl Sandberg had got it wrong.

Eventually my own copy arrived, and as I read it I was pleasantly surprised. I found it deeply resonant on a personal level with my own experiences and recent self-development goals – largely in regard to issues surrounding confidence. The book is basically a 240-page pep talk on having the confidence to negotiate, to put oneself forward for promotions, to take on bigger responsibilities, even if they are outside of one’s comfort zone, to ask for help…and also for women to aspire to the top levels of their respective industries. Even better, it’s a pep talk which is bolstered by pages and pages of statistics and data, and notes about the studies from which the data came (on my Kindle, the final 40% of the book was taken up with references). And surprisingly, despite the often depressing statistics, the end result was inspiring and uplifting. When I finished reading it, I wanted to tell everyone I knew, male and female, that they should read it too.

In particular, certain stories and/or phrases stuck with me, and I find myself thinking about these points again and again and talking about them to anyone who will listen:

“the tiara syndrome”: For me, the great value in this book lies in the reminder to have confidence in my abilities and the courage to take available opportunities. Sandberg provides surprising statistics showing that a majority of women are likely to apply for a job or a promotion only if they feel that they meet 100% of the criteria, while men are likely to apply with only 60% of those skills. This mentality leads to what Sandberg calls the “tiara syndrome”, whereby we wait for our managers to notice our hard work and give us a “tiara”. It’s the career version of waiting for Prince Charming. Instead, we should be thinking of ways to create and put ourselves forward for these “stretch opportunities”.

creative approaches to self-promotion: There seems to be a bias against women who seem too self-promotional, and women are more often expected to be purely team players in contrast to men. This contributes to the difficulties women have in pay negotiations (in the US, women are paid on average 70 cents for every dollar that a man makes) and in obtaining promotions, even when they do reach out and put themselves forward. So sometimes we need to find creative ways to let people know about the good work we’re doing. Sandberg gives the example of a group of women who worked together at the same company, and had regular lunches where they would discuss recent achievements and goals. Afterwards, it was easy for them to praise each other’s work to managers and colleagues, and because they were all praising others rather than pointing to their own accomplishments, the praise was better received. I love this idea, and I hope that more people will start doing things like this.

‘if you have to ask someone to be your mentor, the answer is probably no’: Women (and men) in senior positions can help to even out the gender balance in upper management through mentoring and sponsorship. And yet, Sandberg says, young women often miss the point about what a mentor is, reaching out to strangers rather than colleagues or friends. As she puts it, ‘If you have to ask, the answer is probably no.’ My understanding of this point is that a good mentoring relationship develops from mutual interests and goals. Ideally, if you work with someone whom you really admire, you can learn from them through conversation and asking questions. And, also ideally, the mentor would find it stimulating and learn from the experience as well. If you’re genuinely interested in them as a person rather than just as a ‘senior woman who can help my career’, this mentor/mentee relationship can develop naturally (assuming they are willing to talk and answer questions). The relationship is more ‘friendly’ than a pure business relationship. Sandberg encourages all senior employees, male and female, to find ways of encouraging and supporting junior female employees, and equally for young women just starting out to seek out those whom they admire for guidance (but not necessarily ‘scheduled mentoring time’).

women can be biased against women too: Sandberg encourages both women and men to consider whether they might be allowing a gender bias to creep into their perceptions of female colleagues and employees. As Sandberg points out, if a woman manager feels negatively towards a potential employee or a female colleague up for a promotion, the question of gender bias is far less likely to come up than it would if the manager were male. And yet Sandberg discusses studies in which women were just as likely as men to be subject to such a bias. In one example, both male and female participants were found to judge the highly successful subject of a case study as less desirable to work with when the person had a female name, versus the same person with a male name, despite the achievements and attributes of the case study subject being identical.

focus on the things we can fix most easily, namely our internal barriers, and we’ll be better positioned to address the external barriers: Sandberg gives a memorable example of this concept in a personal anecdote. Working at Google during her first pregnancy, she realised that there were no special parking spots reserved for pregnant mothers. Because of her position and close relationship with the company’s founders, she felt able to mention this problem and now Google has dedicated pregnancy parking. If she had not been in such a high-level position she might have been afraid to speak up and ask. And it was only when she herself became pregnant that she noticed the lack of special parking. None of the male executives objected to the idea, but it simply hadn’t occurred to them because it wasn’t an issue which affected them personally.

This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight against the external barriers at the same time as the internal ones; it doesn’t mean that these external barriers don’t exist; they do, and they are difficult to overcome. But this story is nevertheless a good reminder that the best way to effect change is to be in a position where people are willing to listen to you.

‘don’t leave before you leave’: This is one of my favourite lines in the book, because I relate to it so much. It basically means, don’t talk yourself out of opportunities which are being offered because you’re planning for a possible future instead of living in the present. This section of the book is specifically addressed to women who are thinking of having children in the future and are worried about how to plan for this time, often 5-10 years away, but the advice is equally applicable to any potential major life change.

Often women will hesitate to take on a big career opportunity if they are concerned that they won’t be able to maintain the workload once they have a family. Sandberg tells the story of a young woman at Facebook who was asking lots of in-depth questions about how to balance work and family. When Sandberg asked why, the woman explained that she liked to plan ahead. Sandberg asked the woman if she and her partner were considering having a child, to which ‘she replied that she did not have a husband, then added with a little laugh, “Actually, I don’t even have a boyfriend”.’

Sandberg argues that this approach is problematic, because it prevents young women from attaining the levels of which they are capable before taking time out for their–as yet non-existent–families (and thereby often putting a career on temporary hold). Rather, she argues that the decision to ‘lean back’ should wait until you are actually starting your family. Sandberg states that ‘women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way.’ We need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot by planning for family leave before we are even close to having a family.

respect everyone’s choices and don’t judge those with different goals: Some people believe that Sandberg’s exhortation to women to “lean in” implies a one-size-fits-all approach to women’s careers. They worry that she wants all women to aspire to be top-level executives, and there is no place in Sandberg’s world for the many women who choose to “lean back” for family and personal reasons, for those who do not want to attempt to “have it all”, or for those to whom the C-suite is simply not an appealing goal. But for me, one of the most reassuring aspects of the book was Sandberg’s emphasis on supporting every woman (and man)’s choices, whether career- or family-orientated. As she states,

‘There are many powerful reasons to exit the workforce. Being a stay-at-home parent is a wonderful … choice for many people.  …I fully support any man or woman who dedicates his or her life to raising the next generation. It is important and demanding and joyful work.’ [emphasis mine]

This book is simply trying to encourage the women who do, and should, have those aspirations to reach out and take the opportunities that they see. Sandberg states that every woman should have the right to choose her own path and not feel guilty, looked down on or judged by anyone for how she decides to live. And to me that is the most powerful statement that any book about women and work can make.

equality for women means equality for men: A last minor point which Sandberg makes is that once we stop judging women on whether or not they are ‘having it all’ with their career and living up to a domestic ideal of the perfect wife and mother, we will also stop judging men. She points out that stay-at-home dads often face as much, if not more, judgment for their choice, even from their fellow SAH mothers. True equality in the workplace will also mean that no one, whether a man or a woman, will have to be judged for choosing a different or unusual option.

On a final note, I would like to briefly discuss how the message of this book can help women in our own SEO/digital marketing industry, because in some ways the women in this industry are uniquely positioned to take on board the call to “lean in”. The fact that Sandberg’s career took off at Google and led her to Facebook is telling. She is a product of a digital and tech environment. These industries straddle a strange divide between the male-dominated fields of computer science and web development and a culture of flexibility, innovation and rapid growth and change (for instance, Sandberg describes how during her time at Google she could leave the office at 5pm to eat dinner with her family, and return to work later in the evening). We can have greater leeway than most for this type of schedule, with the possibility of flexible working hours and remote working.

Women in the SEO/digital marketing industry are often underrepresented at conferences – particularly as speakers – and as industry authorities more generally, although some of the top performers in our industry are women. But one of the great benefits of the internet-based community which is naturally found in this industry is the ability to demonstrate knowledge and establish authority in a more democratic way, without being forced to wait for our “tiaras” to be given to us. There are exciting opportunities available, and despite the equally apparent barriers, it is time for those of us who are still waiting to make the resolution to reach out and lean in.


Have you read Lean In? Do you agree/disagree with the points it makes? Do you have ideas for how women in the SEO/digital marketing industry can overcome internal and external barriers to professional success?
I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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