Thoughts on “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”

I consider myself a leader. I understand that my role as a Coordinator makes that the case, but being a leader, for me,  comes down to much more than a job title. I remember the exact time I decided to embrace my “need to lead” and it was a difficult decision. I had been asked to consider a Vice Principalship at a middle and secondary school. As had occurred in the past, I felt tangible excitement at the idea, but I had, until that point, supressed the excitement in order to work part time and maintain my perceived formula for work-family balance. Whenever I considered leadership, I recognized that it would require a commitment of both time and energy and I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough of either. I had two children, a marriage and a home to devote time and energy to and I worried that I would be doing an ‘unmotherly’ or ‘uncaring’ thing by deciding to explore the idea of leadership in my career. In the end, though, I took the leap and accepted the position and I haven’t looked back. However, making the decision, didn’t make things easier. As I have explored leadership as a Differentiated Instruction Facilitator, a Vice Principal, a Principal and now a Coordinator, I have had few women to look to for guidance and support (but the ones I did find are simply gems). Education is filled with women but, where I work, far fewer women can be found in leadership roles.

Last week, I read Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I had listened to and enjoyed her TedTalk and was hoping for some more insight into women and leadership and why it seems to be so hard sometimes. She delivered on insight and, in many ways, it was a real relief to read about my own personal struggles with leadership in such a large scale place like this book. It helped me to recognize the challenges that women face in reaching and sustaining leadership roles in the workplace. One of the most interesting aspects of these challenges is that more than a few of them come from inside women, themselves. I recognize my own hestitancy to lean in at times and this book helped to clarify why this is so.

Here are some of the points from the book that resonated for me:

  • It is normal to feel conflicted about leaning in to work because society places a great deal of emphasis on the role of women to “manage” the home. This is unfair to both women and men, since there is nothing wrong (in fact, it is essential for women who choose to work full time) with sharing responsibilities at home or even (can you imagine?) inviting men to shoulder more than half of the load, if they choose.
  • In the years when we are building our families, women often lean back, when they could lean in. In fact, Sheryl contends that it is better to strive for and obtain positions that are challenging and fulfilling at work because those are the roles that keep us in the workplace. Women sell themselves short by not engaing in jobs that are challenging and fulfilling, which can often lead to further reduction in work time, in order to search for fulfillment in other ways.
  • Women are perceived by both men and other women in a more negative light when they express leadership qualities (strength, ambition, decisiveness). Men are valued for the same qualities that women are criticized for and this makes leadership difficult sometimes. Women, above all, should be nurturing and so when they decide to work full time and lead as part of this work, this is percevied as undesireable.
  • Men mentor men. Women have greater difficulty finding mentors because there are fewer women in leadership roles. This perpetuates the cycle because without mentors and sponsors, it is challenging for women to advance within their organization. There are also perceived complications with men mentoring women, that we have to “get over” in order to solve this dilemma.
  • We cannot do it all. We just can’t. Media perpetuates a myth that leads to feelings of failure for women and men. I struggle with this every single day and, while I know my hope for doing it all is not realistic, I continue to buy in to the myth that if I just work hard enough and manage my time well enough, I can be the perfect wife, mother, worker, housecleaner, cook, volunteer…well, you see what I mean.
  • Life on the home front has to be 50-50 if both partners work full time. I have a fantastic partner and this has been demonstrated time and again. I, personally, could not do what I do without the partner I have. Period. And I more than acknowledge how challenging things must be for single parents.
  • We have to start talking about gender again. I don’t know how and, while Sheryl gives some suggestions, I have to think about this a great deal more. This book applies to me but it is written for millions of women (and men!) Each of us has to figure out what we want and how we will navigate the waters of our own oceans. But it cannot be denied that women are not yet represented enough in leadership roles and, both Sheryl and I would contend, that the world would be better off if this were to happen.
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