Sheryl Sandberg released her bestseller “Lean In” exactly at the right time. When young women entering the work place were thinking, that the time of fighting for equality is finally over, and they are treated equally to men. Sheryl shows us that this is actually not the case. And more importantly, that women can’t have it all - and how this actually a good thing.
When I first heard of Sheryl Sandberg it was in a German business magazine, portraying her as the new Facebook COO. They also showed a picture of her smiling, but somehow I felt that this smile wasn’t real. I pictured her to be pretty career focused and bossy, someone who would smile at you and fire you at the same time. I'm not sure where this idea of her stems from, but it kind of stuck. So two years after this article, in March 2013, I find myself in Stanford in an auditorium packed with young undergrad and graduate students, waiting for Sheryl to give her talk about “leaning in.” I am suspicious, kind of not trusting her, secretly hoping that this talk will confirm my suspicion. Her book has been leading the NYT bestseller list for weeks now. I haven’t read it but heard about it in the news. Cemex Auditorium is a huge auditorium at the business school. The tickets for this event were sold out in minutes and the place is packed. I look around but hardly see any guys. Instead, I see young girls, girls at my age in their late 20ies, women in their 30ies and 40ies, older women, grandmas… no guys.
Sheryl steps up and I expect her to speak about her new book, or worse, read something out of it. But to my surprise, she starts with a question: "Who ever told someone, except for yourself, that you want to be number 1 in your field - like, I want to be CEO or I want to become a president?" Only a few people stood up. I am not one of those, I have never even told myself something like that. Sheryl continues: "So, I will propose three reasons why you didn’t stand up and please raise your hand, when this is the case for you."
Number 1: You didn’t stand up, because you think that you are just not good enough to be number one. That is when I raise my hands. I would love to become number 1 in my field and in my dreams I think I can do it. But then, when I think about all the hurdles and my incompetencies, I loose faith again. What Sheryl then explains is surprising as well as relieving: During all her years at Harvard, the World Bank and then at Google, she never felt to be competent enough to do all the jobs. She always thought that one day, someone will eventually find out that she tricked everybody and the minute she starts working she will be out again. Wow, if even Sheryl, someone with such a magnificent CV, feels incompetent it doesn’t surprise me that I feel the same sometimes. This self-doubt in capable people is called the impostor syndrome. Women tend to experience it more intensely which is often a barrier for them to step up and be the leaders in their field. She jokes, that men would probably go for a talk with the title: How to cope in a world where not everybody is as smart as you are.
Numver 2: You didn’t stand up, because you were feeling ashamed. No one really stands up, so you don’t want to be the first one to do it. I keep my hand to myself, but I could have raised it as well. Sheryl continues: Throughout our childhood and even nowadays, we train girls not to be leaders. Young girls are called bossy or aggressive when they say what they want and lead a group, whereas boys are not faced with those adjectives. This bias continues which eventually leads to a leadership ambition gap. We probably don’t have enough female leaders because we also don’t have a lot we could look up to, which probably stems from not encouraging girls to lead, which leads to less female leaders. Also our society still doesn’t really support women with kids. When a woman gets pregnant and continues working she will often face the question: How can you accommodate family and work? No men will be asked these kinds of questions when he decides go for his career. Facing these hurdles from outside combined with our inner doubts and the natural female wish to be liked; it creates this leadership ambition gap.
Number 3: Please raise your hands if you didn’t stand up, because eventually you want to have a family and you don’t think you can have it all. Maybe that is not something that bothers me right now but it is surely a topic that will definitely bother me in a few years. Sheryl explains that young women give up their career way too early. They start thinking about taking the less ambitious job years before they are actually thinking about having a family, but only because at some point they could imagine to have one and they want to be prepared then. What happens is that thousands of young women lean back instead of leaning in. They could have stayed on their career path and just see what happens. They could have been in a more senior and flexible position, which would have allowed them to pay for a nanny when they finally decide to have kids. This doesn’t mean that you should not think about having a family or always putting your career first, but don’t leave before you actually leave and don’t let this fear decide which path you want to choose.
So, in the end, it turns out that women can’t have it all. We still face prejudices and unequal treatment from outside but also from within. But the most important thing is to be aware of those pitfalls and speak openly about it. Seek and speak the truth as Sheryl put it. I think it’s a good thing that we can’t have it all, because neither can men or anyone in the world. It’s a myth and Sheryl is doing a good job to demystify some of those myths that hold us back (including the myth I had about her). So what would I do if I weren’t afraid? I would like to become one of the first female corporate leaders in Germany. What would you do?