How Women Can Be Leaders

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg | BCBusiness

‘Lean In’ lessons from Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg’s new book

For a modern society that places such high value on equality, the number of women who hold leadership and executive positions might shock you. But probably not. We’re all privy to the numbers—21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, 17 of the world’s 195 independent countries are led by women and so forth—yet none of us has a sound explanation as to why women are as capable as men yet hold far fewer positions of power.

In her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is pragmatic in her search to find the root of the problem. She cites gender-gap studies, references the deep psychological differences engrained in men and women from an early age and calls on her own experiences as a young college student and fledgling business woman.

She notes an interesting disconnect between the seemingly even playing field between men and women during college years compared to the inequality of the corporate world. It’s not a matter of skill—the number of women who fill entry-level positions is just as bountiful as the number of men, but once those people reach the executive level, the positions consist overwhelmingly of men.

Sandberg wants to give women the chance to reach that last stage of transition from employee to leader, but acknowledges the setbacks unique to women. “During the same years that our careers demanded maximum time investment, our biology demanded that we have children,” she writes. It’s a different path to the top and women need different strategies.

More than just waxing philosophical about the injustice of inequalities in the workplace, she offers recourse for women who aspire to take on leadership positions in their careers.

You’ve heard about “leaning in,” but here’s how you can actually do it.

Sit at the table

Internal barriers and feelings of self-worth affect our behaviour in ways that can inhibit our advancement in the workplace. When Sandberg urges women to “sit at the table,” she means it quite literally. Don’t underestimate your value and put yourself in a literal corner in meetings. Walk next to the boss in the hallway, sit up at the boardroom table and be confident with your physical presence.

How to Negotiate a Raise

  • Preface discussions with your knowledge of the pay gap between men and women
  • Always negotiate past the first offer
  • Think personally but act communally: use “we” rather than “I” (i.e. “We had a great year” rather than “I had a great year”)
  • Give a concrete explanation for your request, like a manager who encouraged you to ask, or reference industry standards
  • Combine niceness with insistence to be “relentlessly pleasant”

Women struggle with Imposter Syndrome—feeling fraudulent in our success, like we don’t deserve it and we’re going to be discovered for what we truly are at any moment. We tend to judge our performance as worse than it really is, while men tend to judge theirs as better. Sandberg preaches the “fake it till you make it” strategy. “Feeling confident—or pretending that you feel confident—is necessary to reach for opportunities,” she writes.

It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder

Women need to be more open to risk-taking in their careers, even if that means making a lateral move to an expanding company or taking a step back that could lead to faster growth with a new business. The corporate ladder has four directions: up, down, on and off. A jungle gym has myriad paths to the top. Thinking of your career path this way can help you avoid stagnating and encourage riskier moves.

“At times, staying in the same functional area and in the same organization creates inertia and limits opportunity to expand. Seeking out diverse experiences is useful preparation for leadership,” writes Sandberg. Don’t wait for opportunities and advancements to be offered to you—go out and find them for yourself.

Don’t leave before you leave

With the idea of impending motherhood in mind—or even the notion of it years down the road—women begin to make accommodations and sacrifices in their careers. “They leave before they leave,” Sandberg writes, adding that they stop reaching for opportunities without realizing what they’re actually doing. This can be a slippery slope of leaning back, going on maternity leave and returning to a disappointing career and subsequent lack of ambition. “The time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance.”

Sandberg points out that 74 per cent of professional women will return to the workforce, and only 40 per cent will return to full-time jobs. Go on your maternity leave, but make sure that you have created something rewarding to come back to in the office.

Make your partner a real partner

Having children marks a significant shift in your life, one that undoubtedly affects your career. The trouble is, it’s women who bear the brunt of responsibility and sacrifice when it comes to raising a family. The division of labour at home should be equal if a woman is going to be able to lean into her career the same way that her partner is free to do. “Even if mothers are more naturally inclined toward nurturing, fathers can match that skill with knowledge and effort,” writes Sandberg.

Studies have shown that men are taking on more housework and child care, but the numbers are far from equal. “As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home,” writes Sandberg, adding that women should encourage their partner’s involvement. Avoid the tendency of “maternal gatekeeping,” also known as: “Ohmigod, that’s not the way you do it! Just move aside and let me!” Treating your partner as an equal in the home and having them share the domestic workload increases your ability to find success in the workplace.

You don’t need to do it all

Sandberg dedicates a chapter to the “myth of doing it all,” calling it the “greatest trap ever set for women.” The very idea makes women feel as though we have not succeeded. She urges women to stop striving for perfection, and shares her own moment of clarity in the middle of a fevered attempt to get ahead at work while fighting the fear of being perceived as a woman who places her family above her career: “Slowly, it began to dawn on me that my job did not really require that I spend twelve full hours a day in the office,” she writes. “We overwork to overcompensate.”

By focusing on what really mattered in her job—rather than how it looked from the outside—and adopting the mantra “Done is better than perfect,” she was able to get her priorities in line, become more efficient at work and most importantly, abandon the need for perfection. Nobody can “do it all,” so don’t hate yourself while trying.