I started out this article as a blog, beware…what I ended up with is a manifesto.
You surely read it or heard about it last year-you know, the book Lean In , Women, Work and the Will to Lead, authored by the reigning Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, an accomplished executive with mounting accolades to her name including a place among Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. She’s a mother of two and a first time author with this new work. Her book opens by using facts and figures to frame the status of women in the workplace and women’s education. Here’s one of note: As females, we now earn more than 50 percent of the undergraduate diplomas in the U.S. and nearly 60 percent of the graduate degrees. So armed, we enter the workforce earning as many solid entry-level roles as men. We begin to move up and we begin to excel. Somewhere, though, we quit. The number of women in the workplace is declining for the first time in a generation. We’re educated, we’re ambitious, and we’re dropouts. Top companies today are not run by more women now than in the previous decade, Sandberg says. She adds that “a meager twenty-one of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are women. Women hold 14 percent of executive officer positions, 17 percent of board seats, and constitute 18 percent of our elected congressional officials.”
“We’re educated, we’re ambitious, and we’re dropouts.”
Lean In is peppered with solid references, some so interesting I actually read the footnotes in detail and looked up some of the sources. She comments: “The pipeline that supplies the educated workforce is chock-full of women at the entry level, but by the time that same pipeline is filling leadership positions, it is overwhelmingly stocked with men.” Ms. Sandberg could have made her book bleak, but that wasn’t her intent. Rather, she’s seeking to motivate women at all career levels to aim for their best. She says: “This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious in any pursuit…I do not believe that there is one definition of success and happiness.” Great point, I thought, and one that set me to thinking about the concept of lean in. What does that mean?
I am a corporate dropout having left employment on November 10, 2004. I started my own business in the fall of 2003. I aimed to grow the company quickly, to leave my job, and I did. Nine years later I’ve sold that original company, founded two new ones, expanded and added new divisions to my businesses, and just launched my third book. The entrepreneurial world has been a great fit for me.
Upon leaving the brokerage firm I worked for in 2004, the HR people never called to do an exit interview. My boss, a man that only appreciated females with loose morals or with 36 x 24 x 36 measurements, certainly didn’t question it-he’d never expected me to excel anyway and probably, should he recall me today, wouldn’t believe I’d yet done much. Oddly, someone did notice, though. Two days after I left, I received a call from the corporate headquarters. Assuming it was about benefits, I was surprised to hear the young marketing team lead on the other line. I’d met him a few times, but honestly I didn’t assume he’d remember me. Thinking back, I should have – I stuck out obviously among my training class of 30 given I was the only women (and the tallest!). He’d only just heard that I had left and called to learn why. He sounded genuinely concerned. “Was it my work environment?” he queried, his voice creaking with fear. Perhaps he worried I’d file suit against the aforementioned boss known company-wide as a pervert. No, I said, scowling. “What had they overlooked?” he asked. Nothing that I could think of, I assured. He then offered me a job at Corporate in marketing. I didn’t want to move out of state; he offered to let me do some sort of a territory option; but I just wanted to go, I said. Puzzled, he seemed genuinely alarmed that I just wouldn’t consider other options within the firm. Finally asked:
“How have we failed to support you?”
At the time, I just wanted to be done. Before quitting, I’d spent a year of mornings crying daily as I drove to that job. Fact was, I hated it. I was bored, too. I was ready to tackle something on my own. But reading Ms. Sandberg’s book brought back the memory of the marketing guy’s very pointed question: “How have we failed to support you?” Recalling the young woman of 10 years ago, I wondered about the course and direction of my life. If I had not always possessed the entrepreneurial urge, and I believe some people do and some people do not, what would have happened to my career? Why on earth would I have stayed with that firm? Had I missed something being young and perhaps impetuous?
Even looking back with the benefit of 10 years behind me, I still struggle to find any advantages in staying there. What if I had chosen to have a baby during those years? Once my maternity leave was over, why would I have bothered to go back? Honestly, the job had been a sad creativity suck and a constant battle. I recall spending inordinate amounts of time avoiding the break room as the Branch Manager/boss often lurked there (he apparently drank a lot of coffee because he milled around in there a lot…) or cringing at the expectation that I suffer through yet another beer drinking event-aka vendor-sponsored golf outing. These occurred at least weekly during spring, summer and fall. Worse than spending the afternoon receiving unsolicited golf advice from drunken golf “experts,” were the weekly confrontations with the Office Manager (read: Head Honcho of the Secretarial Staff aka All Women Besides Me). This woman believed it her duty to strictly enforce the corporate (women’s) dress code. She found me particularly lacking in the leg-covering department. Admittedly, I bucked the “Pantyhose Policy” often. I could not stand that requirement. Ladies, we are not talking about options for cute tights, or even patterns, we are talking only nude, tan, or beige hose every single day. Yes, the corporate manual/Bible even listed the approved shades. Her reasoning: I was to set a good example for the other women of the office, all of them a generation older and evidently teetering on the precipice of non-compliance should I lead the flock all astray with my defiance!
At 27 I interpreted the message as:
“Good girls play nice, tolerate much, and wear panty hose.” At 38, I still do.
So, there I was, the island in the middle of the brokerage sea. I had always felt like that, like a little island hoping not to sink when the big waves came. I had to fight all the time. I longed to do more! I knew I was more! I was young, female, and ambitious. Sandberg comments in her book: “Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional- or worse-sometimes even a negative-for women.” I lived that culture once. I was not administrative staff like all the women and not a man like all the other brokers. So, thinking back to the gentleman’s question,
“How did we fail to support you?”
Wow. Let me count the ways.
BUT- Here’s the kicker; that lack of support, or whatever you want to call it, was equally lax from both genders.
Ladies, if you haven’t, didn’t, or currently aren’t feeling the support you need to grow in your career, I cannot say I am shocked. As you know, I never did. However, if you are not getting what you need right now, at what cost are you staying in the status quo? Like me, will you drop out? Or, will you suffer drudgery with a job you hate for the sake of working? Will you stifle your uniqueness and your gifts to stay in a so-so job where you’ll never rise above a certain level because “it just won’t happen here” or that’s “just not the culture”? If you are having these thoughts, I hear you; I’ve been the only girl in the Ye Olde Boy’s Club, too.
Ms. Sandberg raises some important questions and she has certainly set me to thinking. I cannot total the number of conversations I’ve had with women my age that have dropped out of the professional world remarking: “You know, if that’s all I’m going to get out of working there, then I might as well stay home with the kids.” And, so they do. Of course, some women desire to be full time parents, so it’s great they have the choice. I suspect others do want to achieve professionally while co-raising children with their spouse, but the business world just wasn’t rewarding. Without quality opportunities to contribute to and be challenged by, staying home made sense. A career just wasn’t worth it, if that ‘was all there is’. Still, something is missing. I feel it.
Here’s where things get interesting. I receive a call a week from women seeking part time work. I know many of these women; they are friends, colleagues, clients, friends of friends. I even get queries from women around the country that I’m connected to simply by social media. LinkedIn appears to be quite the habitat for would-be freelancers. These callers ask if I have any work, saying: “Just something part time, you know, maybe just 10 hours a week?” Sheryl Sandberg’s term is Lean In. I’ll borrow from my callers and use Dialed In. “I’d don’t want to have to work too much, but just like even to stay dialed in, ” is the refrain.
Uh-oh. That’s a problem for me. Now, I am looking at this person not woman to woman but as business owner to potential contractor. You see, that comment sounds very, very wishy-washy. It says to the potential client or employer: “I want you to give me something because I have a need I want to fill and I’ll fill it with your job, but I’ll do it at my leisure, not at your deadline, because, really, I just want something for me but I don’t care what you are trying to accomplish.” Some of you might be offended about what I just said, but I say it from experience; I have contracted women who start off with this phrase and it has not worked well. The level of commitment is not there to merit the desired compensation. Sorry, but it’s a fact. This ‘dialed in’ phrase sounds to a client/employer as if you don’t want to be committed, responsible, or dedicated. It’s like sticking a toe in the water, but telling everyone you went swimming. You didn’t, you just got one foot wet.
When I hire a contractor, I do not necessarily need 40 or 60 hours a week, or even a month. However, for whatever amount of time I hire, I do need 100 percent. I hire talent and expertise because I am either swamped or I simply don’t possess a given skill. When I hire for a gift I don’t have, I need it and I’m counting on the person to show off that skill and get the work done well.
Some readers may now deem me harsh. But, the need is not about me; it’s about my client’s needs and goals. Still, some of you will say that no, you don’t want to commit, thank you. But I ask you, why? Your time is precious, why use it on something ‘just 10 hours a week’ if you don’t care?
Yet, why be all in, why lean in and why dial in if the infrastructure is not there to support you, to grow you and to use your talents to the highest order? As an employer and as a woman, I want something better this year-I don’t want to ask a great contractor someday:
“How have we failed to support you?”
This is where mentoring comes in-both in being a mentor to others and receiving good mentoring from others. We have the capacity to give and receive both. This year Ladies, be present, even if it’s part time. Be all in, not just occasionally dialed in. If you’re interested enough to try something, why not do it well? I’m not suggesting that you replace your family life, work full time, or start your own company. But, do know what you want. Know what you’re good at and where you could get better. If you’re in the corporate world, ask for what you need, don’t wait for it to be offered. If you’re interested in politics, by all means, gather a talented team and run-now! If you are a stay at home mom that wants to freelance, decide on your services, be up front about your available time and commit with seriousness. No matter where you are in your career, you always own brand YOU. Keep it polished.
Sarah Beth Aubrey finds funding for communities and business! She has won over 400 grants in 35 states and Puerto Rico; funding has yielded $55 million. Recently named to the Indianapolis Business Journal’s “Forty Under 40,” this National Speakers Association (NSA) member brings a serial entrepreneur’s take on keynoting and presents practical, encouraging messages. As the owner of Prosperity Consulting, LLC, a Certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), she hosts grant training courses four times each year.
Sarah is the author of Starting and Running Your Own Small Farm Business and The Profitable Hobby Farm. Her third book, titled Find Funding Now! How Entrepreneurs Should Be Using Grants for Business, just optioned by Wiley, will be released this fall. Sarah holds a B. S. in Agricultural Communications from the University of Illinois.