Why are they so hesitant to put themselves out in the world? Why do they shy away from praise and well deserved awards? Which leads to the harder question- why are they exhibiting the exact same patterns of behaviour as myself?
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year and haven’t heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, let me give you a brief overview. It is about how certain ingrained patterns of behaviour cause women to self sabotage when it comes to getting ahead in the workplace and actually becoming leaders. This is nuanced, subtle and hard to pin down because mainly there is some double speak going on in our culture. Women are told that they are equal, that they can do whatever they want and be successful. My generation certainly grew up hearing it and fully believing it.
And yet we are still judged by a very gender-biased standard. Qualities that are admired in men are perceived to be negative in women. A confident, aggressive male is seen as a good thing. A confident, aggressive female? Bossy, domineering. Dare we say bitchy? We are still the ones that do most of the housework and childcare despite also working full time (okay, not me, personally, so much. But you know, other women…).
More disturbing to me though, is the way we constantly undervalue our achievements while men have no problem over valuing theirs. Sandberg cites a study in her book that looked at female and male med students’ self-evaluation. The female students would consistently give themselves lower scores than their evaluators as opposed to the men who consistently gave themselves higher scores.
Women are constantly worried that they do not know enough, are not qualified enough, are essentially not good enough. Let me give you an example of this. I was at a writer’s conference a while ago and talking to a woman and a man that I had just met. We were getting to know each other. The man says something like, “yeah, I’m working on my first book. It’s going really well- I write around 500 words a day!”. This man was not employed and had no family and had not yet published anything. When prodded, the woman finally confessed that she was the author of over ten books, worked full time and had two children at home. When asked how her writing was going she said, “all right, I guess. but I sometimes wish I could do more. people publish so much more than me…”
What is wrong with that picture? At the risk of stating the obvious, in that moment I became hyper aware of the perception gap between men and women.
Of course, not all men and not all women follow these patterns. That goes without saying. There are some women who exude confidence and assertiveness, who have no problem standing up for what is due them, who can talk about their accomplishments without blushing.
I however, am not one of them. This is also a personaltiy thing- I struggled with shy-ness growing up and am still so far camped in the introvert section I need binoculars to see the extroverts. Yet, as I grow up (just turned 40, but that is a whole other post) I keep on getting hit over the head with the proof of my own competence. I worry that I am not prepared enough, that I don’t know what I am doing. Until I enter the meeting/workplace/workshop and realise that I know just as much if not more than my colleagues. As a friend put it: “I still feel completely incompetent. But then I am subjected to the incompetence of others and realise my own isn’t so bad…”
Sandberg’s book gave me much food for thought. I recognised many of my own behaviours in Sandberg’s examples and appreciate her attempt to shed light on the fact that though feminism has come a long way legally and politically, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to changing the subtle and insidious attitudes that have been around for centuries. (Once again, I’lI repeat that she is talking to the most privileged women, the ones that have benefitted the most from the feminist movement, of which I am one, being a middle class North American woman).
Though after mentioning it to a friend that I had read the book, they told me that it is becoming a bit of a plague in the start-up industry, that bosses are using “lean in” as a buzzword for “not trying hard enough”. Despite the fact that Sandberg encourages not only that women make changes in their behaviours, but that the workplace as a whole make some simple changes in order to level the playing field (such a fraught expression, isn’t it?).
The most disturbing chapter for me was when she was giving tips about how women should negotiate their salaries or promotions in the workplace. Whereas men can simply walk into their boss’s office and state a number, if a woman did this it would seem as pushy. In order to get what we want, we have to walk a tightrope between friendly and assertive, plan out exactly what we are going to say so we don’t make a bad impression. It was tiring just reading about it, let alone having to do it.
It seems the biggest problem comes from these age old gender roles: man= aggressive, take charge. Woman=meek and nurturing. ugh. The workplace was built by men for men and therefore appreciates those qualities in men. When women try do it, it is seen as unnatural.
Now wouldn’t it be great if we could stop assigning gender to values and qualities? I don’t particularly want to be more assertive- I want to do my job, do it well, but not necessarily have to toot my own horn all the time about it. I want to feel confident about my work, but not overly confident- I want to have a good sense of my strengths and weaknesses and how they might bias me. More importantly, I want to work with people who embody these same values, who go about their day with a potent mixture of curiosity, confidence and humility, values I am pretty sure are available to people, regardless of gender.
I guess what I am saying is that perhaps it isn’t only women who need to make some adjustments; the onus is on everybody. Instead of women needing to be more aggressive, what if we all were a lot less cocky and a little more mindful?
Still, I think it is extremely good to be as aware of these complicated attitudes and shadowy barriers that ripple through us as individuals as well as through society. I am now more aware of the fact that I tend to un-see my own competence and authority, that my behaviour is part personality, but a whole lot of societal pressure should be given its due. It is especially important for me to realize this as a mother of two daughters and to make them aware these issues, so they can start early counteracting them.
If you don’t want to read the book, but are interested in hearing her ideas, you can watch her Ted Talk that morphed in the book:
And to conclude, I am refraining from making a self- derogatory comment about my attempt at being deep…
See? Can you smell the eau de confidence already?