Leaning In Dialogues and Gender Difference in Destiny

I find the current discussion on the topic of women’s choices and career advancement a fascinating sideline experience. Observing from the sidelines, as opposed to stepping out on the field, is exactly the type of feminine choice women make, according to what I’ve read of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg isn’t the first person to write compellingly on the topic. She is, however, the first prominent leader of a publicly traded company to enter the fray and bring both cache and credibility to the table. Her role allows for discourse to enter our meeting rooms and living rooms, via talk shows, newspapers, blogs and other buzz-creating communication channels.

Several years ago, a mentor gave me a copy of Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide. This well researched book by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (2003) describes socialization differences of girls and boys from early childhood (play, chores, sports, language usage and more). The imbedded socializations influence women’s beliefs, attitudes, decisions and actions, as well as expectations others—both women and men—hold regarding women, and how these play out in women’s careers. Babcock’s and Laschever’s research comments on the direct (and significant) economic cost to women for making choices not to “ask.” At the same time, they acknowledge the cost for asking: society and the working community have names or labels for women who assert themselves.

Sandberg, in the March 18th issue of Time Magazine (2013, p. 39), shares a lesson learned while at Harvard: men are free to openly discuss their successes, women are not. “The data says clearly, clearly, clearly that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women” Sandberg is quoted in the article. The ability to self promote accomplishments, according to Babcock and Laschever, shapes perceptions for men who then benefit from the positive perceptions of competency, gain access to challenging work, move faster and higher into organizational leader roles and reap increasing financial rewards. Women who risk self-promotion may pay a price and learn to choose a less resistant—and less prominent and financially rewarding—path.

In a recent conversation, one man I know suggested Sandberg’s contention that women must acknowledge our own role in making choices has wiped out several decades of effort on equality. While I respect his thinking, I would frame the discussion differently. Women are making choices to act or not, to speak or not, to ask or not. We’ve learned that advocating strongly on behalf of another finds acceptability, advocating for ourselves results in social cost and requires time, energy and seemingly endless workarounds. In order for the environment to change that shapes our choices, we need to be willing to openly discuss the factors within our families, our communities, our workplaces and larger society that impact how we, women, choose.

By writing, speaking and entering the discourse, we step off the sidelines and onto the playing field. And I say, “bring it on!”

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