Girls Club Event / Lean In Book

lean in book

The last Girls Club event was at The Mess Hall on Sunday 6 October.

The Theme: “Lean In” Book

This month, we discussed the book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which was written by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, after the success of her TED talk, Why we have too few women leaders.

There is an official discussion guide for the book, which we were going to use, but after a quick survey at the start, it turned out only two people had had a chance to read the book, so we went through some anecdotes from the book instead, and discussed them:

* When Sandberg is pregnant, she realises something at work (p.1):

One day, after a rough morning spent staring at the bottom of the toilet, I had to rush to make an important client meeting. Google was growing so quickly that parking was an ongoing problem, and the only spot I could find was quite far away. I sprinted across the parking lot, which in reality meant lumbering a bit more quickly than my absurdly slow pregnancy crawl. This only made my nausea worse, and I arrived at the meeting praying that a sales pitch was the only thing that would come out of my mouth. That night, I recounted these troubles to my husband, Dave. He pointed out that Yahoo, where he worked at the time, had designated parking for expectant mothers at the front of each building.

The next day, I marched in – or more like waddled in – to see Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their office, which was really just a large room with toys and gadgets strewn all over the floor. I found Sergey in a yoga position in the corner and announced that we needed pregnancy parking, preferably sooner rather than later. He looked up at me and agreed immediately, noting that he had never thought about it before.

To this day, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet. As one of Google’s most senior women, didn’t I have a special responsibility to think of this? But like Sergey, it had never occurred to me. The other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, not wanting to ask for special treatment. Or maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed.

We discussed how it’s difficult to imagine another person’s situation unless you’re in it (or they speak up), and – maybe related – we discussed a study that found “after male CEOs have daughters, the average salary for a female employee within the company rises and the gender gap began to close.” (Is this because the father can now imagine their own daughter getting that terrible, low salary?)

* Sandberg was pressured to put finding-a-husband above her career or her education. (See p.17 for her anecdote on this! It really surprised me.)

* From birth, girls and boys are treated differently (p.19):

From the moment we are born, boys and girls are treated differently. Parents tend to talk to girl babies more than boy babies. Mothers overestimate the crawling ability of their sons and underestimate the crawling ability of their daughters. Reflecting the belief that girls need to be helped more than boys, mothers often spend more time comforting and hugging infant girls and more time watching infant boys play by themselves.

* This different treatment continues into school (p.20):

From an early age, boys are encouraged to take charge and offer their opinions. Teachers interact more with boys, call on them more frequently, and ask them more questions. Boys are also more likely to call out answers, and when they do, teachers usually listen to them. When girls call out, teachers often scold them for breaking the rules and remind them to raise their hands if they want to speak.

* And this continues into adulthood. (See p.21 and p.36 for a couple of her anecdotes on being silenced as an adult.)

* She talks about sexism in the workplace. (See p.76 for an anecdote that felt a bit close-to-home for me.)

* Sandberg encourages women to “Sit at the Table” (p.27):

Our invited guests, mostly men, grabbed plates and food and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats.

The four women had every right to be at this meeting, but because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants. I knew I had to say something. So after the meeting, I pulled them aside to talk. I pointed out that they should have sat at the table even without an invitation, but when publicly welcomed, they most certainly have joined. At first, they seemed surprised, then they agreed.

It was a watershed moment for me. A moment when I witnessed how an internal barrier can alter women’s behavior. A moment when I realized that in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within.

(Note: there is an interesting article, “Why the man who said Sheryl Sandberg’s vision for diversity isn’t achievable is wrong,” which refers to some studies related to this topic.)

* Sandberg talks about gender bias, likability and success attribution. (See p.30, p.40 and p.44 for examples.)

* Sandberg suggests a “fake it” tactic can work. (See p.34.)

* We also discussed ambition and our experiences with female leaders, managers, etc.

Reactions to the Book

As one of the people who had read the book, I (Fox) was asked for my opinion on it as a whole. Some people felt that the book isn’t relevant to women who are different from Sandberg (different socio-economic class, or different nationality, or different ambitions or priorities, etc).

While I could see that Sandberg was really trying to address these concerns throughout the book, and she tries to be inclusive and positive towards all women, I said that I was disappointed in the book for being so anecdote-heavy, and that it lacked the practical advice that I was looking for, e.g. How do I counteract gender bias? How can I negotiate better? How do I get equal pay to men in my firm?

However, looking back, I wish that I had strongly recommended it, instead of saying what I wished it had been, because Sheryl Sandberg has written an extremely women-positive and women-supportive book, encouraging women to be whatever they want to be, and I think it’s worth reading. And apparently reading about accomplished women helps us counteract our gender bias towards ourselves; so let’s read more about women!

If anyone wants to borrow the book from me, let me know.

Our Last Event for 2013!

Next month, on Sunday 3 November, we have our last event for 2013: “My Future, Part 2.”

We hope everyone can come along and celebrate the year that’s been… and celebrate our love of our wonderful women.


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