How ‘Leaning In’ Can Lead Us All To A Better World

Thirty years ago women achieved a form of equality, at least in simple numerical terms: they became more than 50% of the college graduates in the developed world. But 30 years on, only 9% of the world’s countries have a female leader; only 13% of women are on governing positions in parliaments and congresses; only 16% are in executive positions in business. And women still only earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn in exactly the same positions.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most influential women in business, encourages us all to review this huge untapped resource.

In 2010, Sandberg gave a TEDTalk in which she described how women – unintentionally – hold themselves back. Her talk, which has been viewed more than 2,000,000 times, encouraged women to sit at the table, seek challenges, take risks, and strive to pursue their goals.

Lean In is a provocative book, but I believe its message is good news for you, your family, your organization, and your government.

If we had a 50:50 split between men and women in the most senior positions in government, business, non-profits, and charities, plus a 50:50 split between men and women in the hardest and most important job in the world, parenting children, I think our lives would be much happier, healthier, and more peaceful.

As Sheryl Sandberg says, “Women in the developed world are better off than ever, but the goal of true equality still eludes us.”

Most of the inequality between men and women is not deliberate; it is because of the mindsets we have developed individually and collectively. To gain the advantage of having the other 50% of the brains in this world working to their full capacity, we need to change our mindsets.

Until you have time to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, here are some of her key observations. As a start, she says, we need to encourage women to do the following:

  • Sit at the Table
  • Make Your Partner a Real Partner
  • Don’t Leave Before You Leave


Sit at the Table

Research shows that women consistently underestimate themselves. When they do well, they attribute their success to having had help, being lucky, or working hard. When men do well, they attribute their success to their own innate abilities. When a young girl is assertive and takes the lead, she is told she is bossy. When young boys do the same, they are praised as leaders.

Sitting at the boardroom table means taking the place you deserve, speaking up, raising your hand, and knowing that taking risks is the best and fastest way to learn.

Whether you are a man or a woman, if you want to be a leader, you need to ask for feedback. Know that painful knowledge is more beneficial than blissful ignorance. Ask your boss: “How can I be better?” “What am I not doing that I don’t see?”

If you want to have the most interesting, engaging job where you can contribute the most, view your journey like a jungle gym scramble, not a ladder you can get knocked off. Ask how you can contribute more. Ask for promotions; don’t wait for an offer.

Make Your Partner a Real Partner

Couples who support each other equally in their education, career choices, and doing the parenting and housework, are happier together, have a better intimate life, and raise happier children than those where the woman does most of the parenting and housework.

Listen to each other and reflect back what you have understood. Seek and speak your truth until each understands from the other’s point of view. When the baby arrives, treat the man as equally competent and let him diaper, comfort, and feed the baby his own way. Children’s early years and the teenage years are when they need both parents equally.

A recent study of Harvard and Yale graduates in their 40s found that 90% of men but only 56% of women were still working full time. Taking the ‘off ramp’ for a period of years – as 43% of highly qualified women have been doing – leaves many women regretting that choice.

Don’t Leave Before You Leave

Being pregnant is exciting and can be quite uncomfortable, but taking on challenging work while you are pregnant can be a great distraction.

In an essay, Sheryl Sandberg explained how she believes women opt out of opportunities too early: “An ambitious and successful woman starts considering having children. She thinks hard about how busy she is and realizes that finding time for a child means something will have to give. As soon as that thinking process starts, she is already looking for ways to scale back. She no longer searches for new opportunities.”

With a partner who takes on 50% of the parenting work, returning to your career within months of giving birth can be quite feasible. As Gloria Steinem said, “Now we know women can do what men can do, but we don’t know that men can do what women can do.” Remember done is better than perfect, and allow each of you to do your best.

Know that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Organize your luck and help build a better world.

Here’s my own story of unconscious bias. When I first heard about Sandberg’s Lean In book, I thought I would not want to read it because I have read plenty of feminist books in my time. It was not until a male colleague urged me to read it, that I picked it up. It is an amazing book, a real page turner, and I am now highly recommending it to everyone I know.

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