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How to lean in, and not fall over: the secret to the good (professional) life

A year after it sparked a global debate about women’s ability to corner the corner office, Sheryl Sandberg’s battle hymn for professional women, Lean In, has just been re-released for a graduate audience. For 50ft Women, a project dedicated to supporting and mentoring young women in the early stages of their professional career, it is timely to reflect on Lean In and the resonance its key messages might have for 50ft Women mentors and mentees.

Sandberg is an articulate and compelling voice on the unspoken – indeed unconscious – barriers that impede women’s journeys to the top. Citing study after study, she highlights a number of assumptions, behaviours and attitudes – held by women and men and internalised by women themselves – that hinder career progression.

It’s become a truisim, but it remains true, that what’s seen as leadership in a man is frequently criticised as bossy in a woman. Sandberg evidences a strong tendency to define the same behaviours as ‘confident’ or ‘aggressive’ depending on whether the person is thought to be a man or woman. Sandberg has since developed an entire campaign to ban the word bossy. It is, she’s argued, a tool to belittle and demean women’s leadership. That socialisation process starts when girls are toddlers and often carries on through school. Little wonder, Sandberg argues, many women don’t lean in to leadership positions.

Women’s time and effort is also shown to not be as highly valued as men’s. Sandberg points to studies that reveal the expectation that women will help colleagues as a matter of course, with little reciprocation. Whereas when men provide help, they receive goodwill and a sense of future obligation in return because they must to be putting themselves out – but it’s just natural for women.

Because of this ‘sharing and caring’ bias, Sandberg powerfully identifies how women negotiating pay or promotions are in a double bind – seen as pushy and demanding if they go for a better deal, yet considered a pushover if they don’t argue for more.

For 50ft Women, Sandberg’s message about self sabotage of success is perhaps the most powerful. Women, Sandberg writes, tend not to lean in. Tend not to – literally- sit at the meeting room table, tend not to raise their hand, query or dispute a point in the forums of power. Women are more risk averse and seem to fear potential (public) failure as a stronger disincentive than they are attracted by the potential gains of high profile success. In a much referred example, she reckons that if men feel they meet, say, six out of ten criteria for a job they go for it, whereas women will be concerned they’re not ready for it.

The mentoring offered by 50ft Women is a valuable circuit breaker and safe space for young women to reflect on these challenges and plan strategies to manage them. Mentoring can help the individual by giving them time and space to reflect on their values and wishes in professional life. Indeed, given the internalised nature of much of what Sandberg talks about, the mentoring relationship seems ideally suited to ‘consciousness raising’ of this kind. Based as it is on dialogue, honesty and goodwill, mentoring can potentially help young women reveal their own unconscious – and limiting – attitudes to themselves.

Building on the experiences of the mentoring programme, 50ft Women is considering an exploration of what a ‘good (professional) life’ might look like for young women today. How do young women define a good life? What do they look for in a good professional life? How do the two intersect and support from each other? Are there differences between generations of professional women in their priorities or definitions?

Sandberg has much to say on what goes towards a good professional life. Apart from identifying the own-goals women can often score, she also focusses on doing what you care about and are committed to. That way, you will be pre-armed for the slings and arrows of criticism that will inevitably be sent in your direction (but you’ll still need to steel yourself for them). She is an enthusiast for taking a risk or doing the unexpected – she describes how accepting positions at both Google and Facebook were seen as maverick decisions by former colleagues in her previous Washington based jobs. She also talks a lot about current and past colleagues, indicating how important the people around you are to professional satisfaction and achievement.

Yet one criticism that could be levelled at Lean In is its fairly traditional conception of success. There is little discussion of whether, where or how leaning in fits into a wider ‘good life’. Lean In‘s premise speaks only to the career elements of life and, moreover, that achievement equals a series of progressions towards seniority, power and influence.

Putting career in the context of a good life, Sandberg makes much of leaving at 5.30pm for tea and bedtime with her two young children. Yet a very high proportion of mothers would prefer to see their children for more than just an hour or two before lights out. Reconciling the desire to be at home with the enthusiastic exhortation from Sandberg to lean in to demanding career challenges is a circle she doesn’t quite manage to square. For many working mothers, it’s less a case of leaning in and more a case of just not falling over! And it’s not just the issue of balancing career and motherhood where questions of having a good life are raised. What about relationships, friendships, sports, community activity, gardening, reading, hobbies, girls nights out or just blobbing in front of The X Factor?

The good life and the good professional life is one where both elements are balanced. Where traditional career progression and achievement are possible at the same time as, say, developing a thriving garden or being a dedicated hockey player. Sandberg’s picture of success doesn’t allow for that balance, undermining an important element in the definition of a good professional life.

Sandberg’s Lean In is a very important and illuminating picture of success, the institutional and psychological barriers impeding women and how women can tackle them. It identifies the kinds of elements that promote a good professional life, but at the same time, the impression Sandberg presents is of a rather sterile world where a good life is runner up to a good career.

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