Learning how to Lean In and Share our Stories: Thank you Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg“‘Did you hear the one about the woman taking a feminist studies class who got angry when someone called her a feminist?’ . . . We mistakenly thought that there was nothing left to fight for.” (143). Sheryl Sandberg‘s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead urges women to lean in to their work and move into leadership roles. And she does this with complete honesty, humility, and humor.

I am in a Professional Ladies Group that started in September 2011. We meet roughly every other month to discuss goals and careers. Almost everyone in my group has read or is reading Lean In. One of the  over-arching themes of Lean In is that we as women need to support one another and share our stories. We need to work together instead of against each other. And when we work together as a community, we learn and accomplish more. I’ve found this to be true for myself with my group of professional lady friends.

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
Note: Not all Professional Ladies are shown and although Frankie the chihuahua is male, he is a feminist.

It seems that a lot of the negativity surrounding Lean In is based on Sandberg’s priviliged background and that she cannot be speaking for all women. However, what those critics don’t realize is that there are women like me, whose world used to be so small, and we are reaching beyond anything familiar to us, interacting with people so different from us, and we just want to know what is out there if we lean in. And Sandberg gives someone like me, an understanding of what else is out there.

I am so fortunate to have such wonderful parents that worked so hard to improve their own lives and mine. They came from extremely large, poor families. My mother’s family were migrant farmers. I have learned more from my mother than any other woman. She’s incredibly smart, strong, driven, and kind. She didn’t have the luxury of going to college or graduate school. She missed the first two weeks of her senior year of high school because she had to work to buy groceries for her siblings. She was leaning in her entire youth, but leaning in to survive and move out of her old life. She dealt with crushing racism in high school from teachers. She went to key punching school and became a professional working woman. She got married to the wrong man who she later divorced.  She met my dad and they got married. They bought a house. They bought a second house. They traveled the world. We went to China when she was 68 and she walked on the Great Wall. I thought, this woman once got paid based on the weight of how much fruit she picked. I wonder what she thought about when she was picking fruit. Did she think she’d be here?

My mother was always honest with me and taught me from her mistakes. She was always reminding me that I could do whatever I wanted. Education is the most important thing. If you have that, no one can take it away from you. There was no question about my attending college. I was going. My dad worked as much overtime as possible. My mom worked five days a week as a preschool teacher (while rewarding, completely exhausting) and then on Sundays she sold at a flea market. All of this so I could attend Fordham. It was stressful for them and I felt bad, but my mom kept on with her mantra, “no one can take away your education. You will always have that.” She also taught me never be supported by a man and never support a man; while the words sound the opposite of Sandberg, they actually mean the same thing. Don’t let a man have the upper hand in any situation. Always be equals in the relationship. And don’t let anyone step on your toes. Stick up for yourself. My mother taught me everything I needed to succeed. I can’t help wondering what she would have done had she read Sheryl Sandberg’s book. My mother didn’t know anyone like Sandberg but she had so much ambition and was a staunch feminist (without realizing she was).

The most important thing about Lean In is that it is opening up a dialogue that has been forgotten for too long. Why are there so few women in leadership? What has happened to feminism? What has happened to us? And while the system still needs to change, this book offers insight and advice to women who want to move ahead. Maybe we can’t change the system as a whole overnight, but we can change ourselves, (which if done on a large-scale, can change the system). Sandberg writes,

This book is not a memoir, although I have included stories about my life. It is not a self-help book, although I truly hope it helps. it is not a book on career management, although I offer advice in that area. It is not a feminist manifesto—okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto, but one that I hope inspires men as much as it inspires women. (9)

And the book is a feminist manifesto. It’s about equal rights for women in the work force. It tackles the issues she has suffered throughout her entire career. She urges women to lean in at the conference table in meetings. She urges women to lean in to their careers; don’t wait until you are ready to take on more work. Just do it and learn as you go.

There are inspirational posters on the walls at facebook. Sheryl Sandberg notes one of her favorites declares, “‘Done is better than perfect.'” I have tried to embrace this motto and let go of unattainable standards. Aiming for perfection causes frustration at best and paralysis at worst.” (125) I like order and things to be neat and tidy. I have gotten so frustrated about things that aren’t important. My boss has told me the same thing many a time, “Melanie, let it go.” And he’s right. Sometimes when I’m in a k-hole of unreasonable organization, I hear my boss’ voice, and I let it go. There is no reason to waste all your energy making something perfect that does not need to be.

I strongly urge you to pick up this book. It’s incredibly well-written, smart, funny, and inspiring. And then make sure a friend reads it so you can discuss it together.

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2013.

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