On the day Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” hit bookstores, people filed up escalator after escalator at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City to see her sit down with friend and NBC special correspondent Chelsea Clinton.
An hour and a half before the event was scheduled to begin, three-quarters of the chairs were filled. Latecomers circled like vultures looking for the odd open seat.
I was glad I had shown up early.
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The attendees were largely young, stylish professional women, with a smattering of men spread throughout the crowd. All clutched signed copies of Sandberg’s book and many tapped diligently away on smartphones and tablets while we waited for Sandberg to appear.
In "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wife and mother, posits that women unintentionally impede their own career progress by backing away from challenges, risks and assuming positions of leadership when they should be leaning in.
The book—one that a Barnes & Noble manager said reached the sales numbers typically reserved for books about dead celebrities—was the subject of both conversation and controversy in the weeks leading up to its release. My initial appraisal of Sandberg's views put me on the side of the opposition; I objected to what I perceived as her blaming women for their lack of representation in positions of power in corporate America.
But as the conversation between Sandberg and Clinton got going, I soon found myself nodding my head furiously, and, well, leaning in. The following are a few of the most unexpected parts of Sandberg's talk, the same ones that made me change my tune.
1. She Isn’t All Business
Based on her credentials, what I'd seen and read about her and what I'd read of her book, I expected Sheryl Sandberg to be a forthright, powerful, strictly-business speaker. "Lean In" is very human and certainly has humorous elements, but it had the overall tone of a serious call to action. I wasn't prepared for what she's like in real life.
She was so ... bubbly.
The event was Sandberg's first following the publication of her book, and she didn’t hide her excitement ... or her nerves. Once she made her entrance, and the applause died down, she practically squealed with delight over the crowd that had turned out.
I felt a bit disappointed in myself for being surprised at this. On a subconscious level I had subscribed to a stereotype about successful women, when I really know that a woman—or anyone, for that matter—can be both powerful and personable.
2. She’s Guilty of What She Preaches Against
Sandberg admitted to the audience that there are times when she feels like a "fraud" or faces situations at Facebook where she doubts her own capabilities. Are you serious?! I thought, This woman held top positions at Google and Facebook, two of the top tech companies in the world.
She, herself, called it "remarkable" that she feels this way, considering that at this point she's written an entire book about how women shouldn't. On that same note, despite all of her research and wealth of professional experience, she still struggled to call herself an “expert” during her talk.
But she also made it clear how she's come to command corporate forces: In fact, Sandberg related a story about a speech her brother and sister gave at her wedding. They described themselves not as her siblings, but as her first employees. “To the best of our knowledge, Sheryl never actually played as a child, but really just organized other children’s play,” they said.
Everyone laughed, Sandberg included, she said, but there’s a part of her that still feels shame about being so “domineering” as a little girl. Being “bossy”—a word that, she pointed out, is almost exclusively applied to little girls—may be funny in retrospect, but is not a desirable quality in a female child. Rather than exhibiting leadership qualities, little girls should be sweet and nice. “There’s something not funny about that,” she said. I liked that she recognized it.
3. She Didn't Write the Book Just for Women
Sandberg told us she welcomed the media controversy surrounding her book in the weeks before it hit stores because it restarted the conversation about women and work. "I'm worried about stagnation," she said, "There has been no progress for women in the corporate world for 10 years." It did frustrate her, however, that out of all the articles she read about her book, she couldn’t find a single male byline.
“Men are afraid to talk about gender,” she said, relating a story about a male colleague who said he would prefer to talk about his sex life in public than bring up gender even in general conversation. In the book, too, she addresses how anyone who starts a conversation about gender in the workplace is “wading into deep and muddy waters.” Her book, she stresses, is an attempt to further women's progress by starting a dialogue.
One area that Sandberg finds particularly fraught is that of mentoring. Studies have shown time and again that both men and women who have great mentors end up more successful than those who don’t, she explained. But many high-status male professionals are afraid to mentor women because of "how it looks." As Sandberg put it to us: an older man and a younger man in a bar looks like mentoring, but an older man and a younger woman in a bar looks like an affair.
This had never occurred to me before, and my cheeks burned with frustration as I realized that this has already happened to me. At one of my first gigs out of college, at an auction house in New York City, the owner of the company never wanted to bring the female employees on work errands alone in his car, and thus brought the only male employee every time. It gave the male employee twice the time to form a rapport with our boss than any of the female employees had, which naturally led to the owner selecting the male employee for the most consequential tasks. Sandberg said that the stigma of male-female mentorship must be eradicated: "It should be a badge of honor to mentor a woman," she said.
Sandberg mentions in the book that she wrote it “for any man who wants to understand what a woman—a colleague, wife, mother, or daughter—is up against so that he can do his part to build a more equal world.” And I believe her.
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