What I Heard Sheryl Sandberg Say at BlogHer '13
One of the challenges of our instant-expert culture (or instant-shallow, depending on how you look at it) is that almost every message turns into a whisper-down-the-lane game. As an idea or event gets amplified, it loses all its complexity, often becoming a cartoon character of itself: the bigger it gets, the less dimension it has.
I knew this is what was happening to Sheryl Sandberg's revolutionary bestselling book and its message, Lean In. How could it not? Trying to talk about women and work and -- gasp! -- gender equality is a conversation that starts at supercharged, and then hastily makes its way to polarized and overdrawn, incomprehensible, leaving many, many people for whom the message is meant turning away, not seeing how they fit in. With Lean In, a particularly unfortunate shift was that many, many people presumed her book was meant for women aiming for the C-suite. Not the case; not at all.
I can say this with certainty, because, lucky me: I was one of the more than 4,000 women who got to hear Sheryl Sandberg speak her message out loud, to a packed and attentive room at BlogHer '13 in Chicago this weekend. She was passionate, clear, and incredibly convincing. Not convincing about her own opinions—though yes, she was convincing about that, and I'll be running out to buy the Lean In t-shirt all the Lean In team members were wearing as soon as they make them available—but convincing about the simple reality of gender inequality, and the subtle ways that women agree to it and play into it.
Sheryl Sandberg with Lisa Stone BlogHer '13 Image: Danielle Tsi Photography
But it is no blame game, what Sheryl is saying–neither to men, nor to women, no matter what you've heard. And it is no way a call to action only for women in the corporate boardrooms, but to women and men everywhere: Her message is a reminder, and a call to pay careful attention, to realize all the ways in which we women unintentionally take a back seat at the conference room, instead of taking our due seat at the table, and the powerful cost of that reality.
In fact, that's one of her best examples: That when women file into a room in a meeting, they will often take the seats lined along a wall, instead of sitting front and center at the table. Or this: We will wait till we have all the information or all the credentials before stating our opinion or asking for a promotion, while men are happy to leap into the fray with 50 percent of the information or skills.
But she isn't chiding us; she is urging us, with a deep passion and vision: Women have a different skill set then men, women have a different vision than men, women value relationships more than men. And this is why the world needs us to Lean In so badly. If the world is being run by men -- and the statistics worldwide prove it surely is -- then the world is lacking in the balance that is so desperately needed to make our culture, and the world's culture, more open.
But the one single thing Sheryl said that stood out the loudest to me was something I have not heard at all in the media churn surrounding the publication of her book: women who lead are disliked, period.
And this is not the women's fault.
It is the fault of all that "we" -- collective society -- have decided women must be: the nurturers, the caregivers, the give-it-all-to-otherses. And that, we women can surely be. But there is no reason why those qualities don't go with leadership. I know that for me, they very much do. And that I have been a leader since I was a very young girl with big ideas in my head.
And you know what people called me? Bossy. And I was one of hundreds of women, maybe thousands!, who raised their hands in that room when Sheryl asked who had been called that adjective when she was growing up.
Sheryl Sandberg talking to bloggers at BlogHer '13. Image: Danielle Tsi Photography
Then Sheryl said the quote heard round the Twitter: "Next time you're about to call your daughter bossy, take a deep breath and say, 'My daughter has executive leadership skills.' "
The room broke out in cheers. And not just because it is a memorable line, but because it is a true one. After all, who among us would intentionally set our daughters back, by giving her messages that she must be docile, nice, and always work to serve others' happiness instead of thinking about her own? And yet, with that simple quote, you can see how easy it is to unintentionally teach our daughters to lean back. And to teach our sons that that is what girls -- and women -- are meant to do.