All about Leaning Towards and In

I held of writing this review for practically 2 days because I did not want an outpouring of knee jerk reactions, especially since the subject of the book hit really close home. I am talking of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in – Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I know this book is the latest “in” book and I had for some time avoided reading it, primarily because, I do not like Management and Leadership yada yada yada books and secondly, I was convinced that Ms. Sandberg’s work could not possibly compare to feminist writings of Gloria Steinem, Emma Goldberg or even a Virginia Woolf. I did not believe that what these women had already written could be overridden and what could Ms. Sandburg possibly write that was original? However at a recent corporate event, I was given this book as a corporate gift, in fact it was given to all women participants and on the way back from work, out of curiosity, I began to read the book.

My assumptions were not wrong; this book is hardly literary or even scholarly. It is a Cosmopolitan to the Room Magazine. Like Cosmopolitan, every one’s heard of Lean In and like the Room Magazine, very few people have actually read The Second Sex, or Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion. Those who have read any of the academic feminist authors will agree that Ms. Sandburg’s work lacks depth; it’s very narrow in scope and enumerates the challenges faced by a very narrow specific group – primarily white, educated (Ivy League educated) of upper class background. True feminist challenges are far more complex – women around the world have to struggle and overcome challenges with security, survival, socio-economic opportunities, just to reach the plateau from which Ms. Sandburg begins her hypothesis. She talks of supportive partners and bosses who will be open to communication – but for these to happen, there are certain “givens” which she assumes; partners who are not chauvinists and are not violent; bosses who do not indulge in sexual harassment or other discriminatory behavior. Her road ahead for equality and leadership is based on all things being equal and in equilibrium.

Having said all of this, I must acknowledge a deep respect for the home truths that she brings out if we reach that plateau or if things are in equilibrium. There is no getting away from the fact that women today in a corporate environment continue to be discriminated against and the “glass ceiling” very much exists. The leadership gap, which she succinctly points out, exists and I am in completely in agreement with her that unless women take up more and more leadership roles, the road to corporate equality will not be built and we will fight the same battles our mothers and grandmothers fought. Her understanding of corporate dynamics is par excellent – she writes that men are promoted basis potential while women are promoted basis past accomplishments; she dryly states that men are allowed to focus on their achievements but women are expected to be loyal to their organizations and leaders. She speaks of how professional ambition is expected out of a man, but is considered a non-complimentary trait among women. The women who has career aspirations is considered “too aggressive” , a “bit political” or “difficult or worse, much worse “a feminist” (Shudder! Shudder! Horror! Horror!!). I was absolutely bowled over when she wrote about work –live balance, an oft-repeated jargon of the corporate world. She is the first senior leader, regardless of gender, who points out the inherent dichotomy of the term – “Framing issues as work-life balance – as if the two were diametrically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” She makes an extremely valid point about women “keeping their hand up” because inherently it’s men and not women who put themselves forward, and in the absence of raising the hand, even managers with the best of intentions miss out. She bares the fact out that women are emotional and cites the example of Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, who believes that women cannot help but care when attacked and they should react accordingly and feel anger, sadness associated with such criticism and then move on. She lambasted the popular myths of Mentoring and Having it all – she categorically states that the new culture of seeking mentor may not be the best way to go – usually, mentoring refers to a senior person seeking and talented junior employee out and guiding them along the path. It’s not having an hour-long in-depth conversation. She also brilliantly calls out that no woman can do it all – it’s just important to get it done. I am absolutely floored by the fact, that she notices that single woman as well women married with children need a home life. It is important for the single woman to have a personal life as much as a married woman, may be in the end so that she herself can meet someone and get married and become the married woman with children herself. In the end, there are two very important things that she states, one , men also need to lean in as the women and become equal partners at home and at work and secondly women themselves need to band together to promote their cause and celebrate their success!

I work for one the biggest Fortune 500 conglomerates and I can truly say that my organization is an equal opportunity employer and truly promotes and respects women. There are stringent laws on sexual harassment with an HR team which has a hawk eye focus and an independent authority to make sure there are no powerful influences distorting truth. I have colleagues and bosses, who openly declare that women make better employees. Yet despite all this, I know it’s not a level playing field and unconsciously there are actions which bring the glass ceiling up all around us. The very fact that “Lean In” was given to only female managers is a case to the point. When Zig Zigler writes a leadership book, everyone gets it, but” Lean In” is for women?????This is a management book for both men and women, but because the tag line has women in it, it is instantly branded as a women leadership self – help book. I have seen men who have been guilty of some really bad indiscretions, being promoted, while the women with great results, flawless execution are told to improve their “peer management” skills. A colleague of mine is aggressive and a go getter – guess what happens? Promotion. I have another colleague who is aggressive and a go getter and this one is told to be more “sensitive” and less “aggressive” – I leave you to guess the gender of both. Time and again, I have been told that I am a “emotional” creature and this is a disruptive quality in my career progression – well I am a woman and I am wired to be emotional and I am going to be emotional when someone critiques my work because it’s my hard work, my sweat, my sacrifice of my Ph.D, which keeps getting prolonged because I spend 16 hrs plus at work, so yes, I am going to be emotional about it!!

So where does it all end? I don’t know – I am too small a fry to real solve the big problems, but a nano step can be a move in direction, when men read a “Lean In”

 

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Ladies Choice…

I just finished reading a New Yorker article by Laura Hemphill, Why Women Should Skip Business School.  On my very first reading of the article, it left me bristling and the feminist inside me, that rarely comes out, (Feminism and Post Feminism is all very passé! ) kind of exploded.  Ms. Hemphill, herself a survivor of mad-bad world of Wall Street and now an author (She has written a book on a young woman’s survival in the financial world called Buying In – “In” seems to be in; remember Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg!) makes some sweeping assumptions. Though she backs it up with enough data sources, one cannot help but get irritated with the constant chorus of the article – business school is extremely expensive and women don’t make much of it since they by mid 30s, they have a home life to address. Therefore cost benefit analysis shows that women should in fact use the two years to advance in their career instead of opting for Business School.

My first reaction is that she is being extremely narrow in her views; though Finance is a man’s world and there are enough horror stories of women in struggling to gain a footing in this field (that is a whole new post!) there are plenty of women who make it and stay on the top. ( Irene Dorner of HSBC, Edit Cooper of Goldman Sachs, Lara Warner from Credit Suisse etc). While I agree with her that unlike Law and Medicine, a degree from business school is not a pre-requisite to succeed in finance or related industries, one cannot deny that advance knowledge of matter will only help and not hinder. Finally in the era of communication and social responsibility, there are many women who are going full steam in their careers while successfully managing their home lives.

Now after writing all of this, I have to step back and think – I have been working in the financial industry for over 9 years now and have moved from the entry-level to now mid management and have seen how gender opportunities evolve. Though I work for one of the most gender sensitive and sincere organizations, I have loads of friends who belong from this industry of both genders and I have seen the highs and lows of their careers and I have seen how the gender role not consciously but sub consciously seems to affect career choices. Your employer has to do nothing, you will do it yourself!

I have a friend who works in hard-core retail finance – she is one the smartest women I know and her understanding of Analytics and Six Sigma leaves industry gurus gasping for breath. Yet recently, she gave up on a very lucrative career advancement opportunity and instead settled on a relative low-key role because she had a 1-year-old daughter to bring up. She was candid enough to tell me that for the next 7 odd years, i.e. until her daughter is 8 years old or so and her dependency on her mother reduces, my friend will sit tight on the wilderness of career advancement and bide her time out.  She has a husband who is at a lucrative position but travels constantly and therefore she is completely fine with her low-key role where she get a decent remuneration and but most importantly gives her flexible timings and working hours. Career Advancement will come later, much later.  Yet another friend, again very successful and very driven recently declined moving to a new organization that was offering her a better position, a much better pay and benefits because she discovered that she was pregnant. She told me that while her though her current employer did not value her work as much as others, and she had been time and again ignored for promotions, one cannot deny that after working for so long with them she has built up a comfort level and they will be more accommodating of her leaves and other personal needs during the next 9 months than a new organization where she still has to build up her credibility. True, she has to put her advancement on hold for good two years, but at 31, she said her personal life takes priority. These are all examples of women in the fast paced financial industry – even in the more “softer” industries like Art, such choices are being made daily. My sister, a double MFA from University of Boston in Literature and Fine Arts, worked for 8 years in one of the leading Museums where she used to head the Art Restoration department. After my niece was born, she took a complete hiatus from career for good 9 years – true she made that choice willingly and she wanted my niece to have a good home life and not go through some of the downward effects of having a full-time working mother, which my sister and I had ( I never felt there was any downside of having a working mother, but she contends that some of our life choices would have been more thought through if we had more face time with our very kind but always short on time parents). However today when my niece is 12 and quite capable of managing herself, my sister did not go back to the Art field which she loved but instead settled for a teaching job at a Private School since it gave her more time at home and with her daughter.

All of this makes me think that maybe, just may be Ms. Hemphill has a point. She may be right when she states “isn’t the most important thing for a woman to work as hard as she can and advance as far as possible while she’s still in her twenties and her life is as uncomplicated as it’s going to get? That way, by the time she’s a decade or so along, she’ll have more savings, more job experience, and more bargaining power—all of which translate into more options.”  Again I do not want to make sweeping assumptions and there are different stokes for different folks, but there seems to be a significant population of women who attest to the fact that sooner the women get started in their business careers, the better it is.

Does this mean that this is a reinforcement of traditional gender roles?  The man of the house earns the bread and the lady manages the home and hearth? I do not think so; I think this is an over-simplification of the matter. Today most men are equal partners in household chores and managing home front than ever before – these men cook, clean and babysit without qualms and don’t have any inhibition on how these exercises my dint their machismo.  In a nut shell, they are cool with it! The women on the other hand make conscious choices to put their home life ahead of careers.  At the end of the day, they choose to have a baby and bring him/her up, but it was and is their choice. This in itself shows a lot of empowerment and the self-belief to design their destiny. True, it might entail a career step back for a couple of years, but then these women are happy with their decisions.

Last Word – The woman should make her choice that enables her to lead complete and fulfilling lives instead of going  – Shit! I wish…Business School or no Business School!