O Womaniya: Think before you leave

“The most common way people give their power is by thinking they don’t have any”

Alice Walker

“A feminist is someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes”.

It was easier to understand how discrimination against women exists in society than to realize how we ourselves undermine our own capabilities. Dealing with this self-awareness was more challenging than discrimination in general. I remember when I got my first job, from the first day itself, I was feeling guilty about not having enough time at home and not being able to manage the house better. This feeling was recurring when I moved from one job to another. I remember this one moment when I forced myself to come home early so that I could spend more time taking care of the home which was absurd. I could have spent this time networking with new people at the office or doing something else rather than unnecessarily worrying about my so-called responsibilities to take care of the house. I also skipped many office get-togethers, feeling that it would be a waste of time.

It was quite relatable and engaging to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead’. Sheryl Sandberg served as the chief operating officer (COO) of Facebook for more than a decade. She raised her voice against the discriminatory practices at the company. She also founded two organisations called Lean In and Option B to help women achieve their ambitions and help companies build inclusive workplaces where women of all identities are supported and empowered.

Reading this book made me realise that what I used to feel is a universal feeling experienced by all women of the world. Talking to so many women colleagues made me understand that workplace discrimination is pervasive. Almost all the women accepted that they undermine their capabilities and fail to advocate for themselves. I have read many books that show systemic discrimination and stereotypes against women, but not every book discusses solutions to these problems. A majority of books dealt with the external obstacles that created hurdles in the path of women’s careers. However this book focuses on the “internal barriers” faced by women in their journey of career progression. Sheryl adds that these internal barriers hold us, women, back from looking for opportunities and dreaming big.   

That’s where the book shows the path through which women can take charge and grow in this discriminatory man dominated world. Many would not agree with it but it made sense to me. We need to come forward and take on the challenge of balancing work and home without feeling guilty about anything. According to the author, Lean In is a way to address the problem of lack of representation and discrimination against women at the workplace. It is totally acceptable that many institutional, political and policy changes are required to deal with the discrimination problem at a larger level. But we need to take the smaller steps. The author feels that we need to break free from that unknown fear and move forward.

She shows how despite having to face so much discrimination in the internal and external environment, women have to go extra miles to prove their capability and seriousness. Some of them are highlighted in the book:

  • Women have to prove themselves to a far greater extent than men have to do. 
  • Women hold themselves back. They lower their expectations of what they can achieve. They put themselves down before others can. They consistently underestimate themselves leading to this strong feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’
  • Women internalise the message that it’s wrong being outspoken, aggressive and more powerful than men. 
  • Women are discouraged to take risks and advocate for themselves
  • Women are disliked for not displaying the so called ‘appropriate behaviour’
  • Women are judged for doing it all when no one knows what’s going on in their mind and how they are constantly struggling and hustling to do everything imperfectly. 
  • Women suffer not only discrimination and sexual harassment but also everyday blatant & subtle sexism. 
  • Women are also looked down upon for managing everything and also made to feel guilty for not doing it perfectly.

The biggest take away of this book is that it makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious in any pursuit. Though women are discouraged and disliked for being ambitious and taking risks, the author adds that career growth is mostly dependent upon taking risks and advocating for oneself. Because opportunities are rarely offered, they are seized. Women suffer from ‘tiara syndrome’ where they expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.  However, it doesn’t happen like that in the real world. Women need to advocate for themselves when their efforts are not recognised. Sheryl adds that not only do we need to take risks, prioritise growth, challenge ourselves but also ask for promotions with a smile on our faces. According to her, there are no perfect opportunities, we need to learn the skill to make any opportunities fit for us. To have a successful career plan, she suggests adopting two concurrent goals: a long-term dream and an 18-month plan. 

The most insightful fact about this book is the idea of ‘Don’t leave before you leave’. Women don’t leave the workforce making one big decision but they make many small decisions and leave the workforce. One of the best examples she gives is about pregnancy. Generally all women start worrying about pregnancy long before even trying to conceive which hampers their career prospects. Sheryl feels that women should utilise the time to grow and lean in till the moment their child is not out of their womb. It made perfect sense to me. It’s like whatever time you got, you give your best shot, you work hard and achieve whatever you can so that when you come back after your pregnancy break you have a base on which you can restart your professional journey.

No one can have it all and whoever is claiming to have it all, is lying, says the author. The thing is that life is full of imperfections and flaws. It might look perfect to other people but it is never perfect. Women need to embrace the mess and keep going. Having a supportive partner can help in dealing with these things in a better way. It is a must for any working woman if she wants to excel in her professional life. If the partner shares responsibilities at home, it becomes easier for a woman to manage work and home both.

Very rightly she shares this whole idea of ‘fit in’ at the workplace. I can say this from my personal experience that people are appreciated for ‘fitting in’ and not for delivering good work. People were promoted and liked just because they were fitting in and they were sucking up to their bosses. Workplace bias is a reality. People are evaluated based on personal preferences. At the same time, the author feels that one must not inject gender into every conversation which makes people uncomfortable as well as brings a feeling that one is asking for special treatment. Rightly so, she shows how some women are also perpetrators of sexism because of internalised patriarchy and misogyny.

The only thing the book lacks is the idea to bring reform at a larger level through which every woman gets to understand all the biases and barriers they face internally. How can we bring systemic change to it? Until and  unless things are not changed at a larger level, it will take years and years of hard work and effort to achieve gender equality and empowerment.

I am grateful that a colleague of mine gifted me this book recently. It’s fascinating to read this book at this point in my life when I am trying to make my career bit by bit and  understand it from the perspective of a woman who worked in a male-dominated workplace. It feels so warm when women support each other which is not the general norm. Though it is not their fault because they also come from the same patriarchal environment.

Sheryl Sandberg is a brave woman who not only took various initiatives to change the system for the better but also showed a path to the upcoming generation. Her honest ordeal in the book makes it a must-read for all women out there. It will empower women to sit at the table, understand the myth of doing it all and why we should not leave before we actually leave the workplace.

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