Women in Business—and Law is a Business–Must Learn to Lean In

I promised you more on Sherly Sandberg, and here it is.  I might have mentioned that I admire this woman a lot, and here is more to make you understand why.

Recently, Ms. Sandberg, former COO of Google and current COO of Facebook, delivered the commencement address at Barnard College, the esteemed women’s college at Columbia University.   Her theme was that today’s young women need to close the ambition gap before they can close the achievement gap.  She contends that her generation (and mine, for that matter) has blown it.

She reminded the graduates that they are all privileged on a day when they graduate from college—privileged because the future is full of boundless opportunities.  She asked the graduates to contemplate what in the world needs changing and how they were going to change it.  She also reminded them how lucky they are to be equals with men under the law and then added the sobering fact that the promise of equality is not equality.  The truth is that men still run the world, and she quoted these facts to support her assertion:  Of 190 heads of state, nine are women;  Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of the seats or parliament are held by women; Of corporate America’s top jobs, 15% are held by women; And of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.  Even more sobering, these numbers have not changed in nine years.

Sandberg is saddened by the lost opportunities for her generation of women, many who were raised by women who told them they could be anything they wanted to be.  However, thirty years later, women do not have an equal voice about the decisions that affect all of their lives.  So, the only thing that she can do is place her hope in the next generation of women—YOUR generation–to do better—-to change the dynamic, to reshape the conversation and to make sure that women’s voices are” heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored”.  To do this, Sandberg says that you will have to “lean way into your careers.”  Find something that you love doing and do it “with gusto”.  If all young women start to “lean in”, we can close the ambition gap here and now, according to Sandberg.

Sandberg emphasizes the importance of believing in yourself.  She sites studies which show that, when compared to men, women underestimate their performance.  Here it is worth quoting directly.

“If you ask men and women questions about completely objective criteria such as GPA’s or sales goals, men get it wrong
slightly high; women get it wrong slightly low.  More importantly, if you ask men why they succeeded, men attribute that
success to themselves; and women, they attribute it to other facts like working harder, help from others.  Ask a woman why
she did well on something, and she’ll say, “I got lucky.  All of these great people helped me.  I worked really hard.”  Ask
a man and he’ll say or think, “What a dumb question.  I’m awesome.”  So women need to take a page from men and own
their success.”

Sandberg acknowledges her own failures on these issues along the way.  We all have them.  The important thing is that we recognize this and do something about it so that we are not held back by our own bad habits.  According to Sandberg, you must believe in yourself and start acting like you, too, are awesome.  Raise your hand when you have an opinion.  Your opinion is just as important as the guy sitting next to you in your class in law school or at the meeting at the law firm.  Sandberg also acknowledges the external forces that work against women, things like a positive correlation between power and success and likeability for men as compared to a negative correlation for women.  You all know that old saw.  However, Sandberg says the way through that is to put your head down and just keep on working.

She wants you to think big and to own your successes.  She understands the work-life struggle and the compromises that you will have to make.  She gets very practical in suggesting, as I do in my book, that who you choose as your life partner makes a real difference.  If you choose the person who supports your career and the burdens and successes of your personal life, you will have a greater opportunity to go further and change the world into what we need it to be.  She also recognizes that jumping into the work force and rising to the top is not the only way to make a difference.  However, she also believes that, if you pick the right job—a job that is compelling– you are going to be far less inclined to walk away from it.  Something that stirs your passion may be worth the rat race.  She states, “If you want to make a difference, you better think big and dream big, right from day one.”

This is all great food for thought, and I discuss these same concepts, as they specifically relate to women lawyers, in Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law.

Sandberg closes by encouraging the new Barnard graduates to “aim high”—something that you know I want for all of you.  She reminds them that the world needs them in positions of leadership—-women throughout the world need them in positions of leadership.  She asks them to ask themselves the question, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”

The answer is in each and every one of you.

For the full text of Sheryl Sandberg’s  speech, see www.businessinsider.com/facebook-coo-sandberg.

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