Female MBAs on Sheryl Sandberg: It’s like ‘having someone in my corner’

The Globe and Mail

From left, Emily Graham, Eve Hart and Liz Firer-Gillespie at UBC’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

With her new book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, confronts gender stereotypes in business, and offers advice for women trying to navigate them. She’s taken some hits for her honesty about how women have to balance their ambitions against being liked, and for not fully addressing larger workplace issues. But what does this controversial book say to young women launching their careers?

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The Globe’s Erin Anderssen asked a trio of MBA students at UBC’s Sauder School of Business to read it. Below, Liz Firer-Gillespie, 33, Eve Hart, 27, and Emily Graham, 30, discuss what they took away from Sandberg’s advice, how it made them reflect on their own experiences, and the power in pretending there’s a million bucks in your pocket.

What was your main takeaway from Lean In?

Firer-Gillespie: I think the point Sandberg was trying to make was that yes, there are larger systemic issues surrounding gender roles, but we have to advocate for ourselves and each other and stop being hesitant to, as she put it, sit at the table.

Graham: It felt a lot like finally having someone in my corner, knowing I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.

One of the criticisms of the book is that Sandberg puts too much blame on the behaviour of individual women. Is that fair?

Hart: I agree with Sandberg. By changing ourselves we are taking ownership of the problem.

Graham: It can’t always be on men’s shoulders to change our social standing; women need to step up. It’s really easy to point fingers at men and say “they’re not treating us as equals”, but waiting around for men to suddenly open all the doors isn’t going to get anything done any time soon. Until men have women in upper management to look at and see that they can hold their own, they’ll always have doubt that women can be leaders. At one of my recent [accounting] jobs, the [male] CEO hired a woman to be the [construction] company’s president, and then the first thing he did was call in his managers, sit them down, and ask “Are you okay working for a woman?” I’ve always wondered what he would have done if they had all said “no.”

Hart: I remember at one of my meetings for an MBA group project, I finally decided to speak up. I’d sat quietly many meetings in a row, because I was the only woman on the team. After preparing to make sure I could back up my point, I stated my case for a decision and then a male colleague responded, “I just don’t want you to make that decision based on your emotions.” I didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh.

Firer-Gillespie: And it really does all start when we’re little. I vividly remember show-and-tell in first grade, I had been playing Lego with my older brothers and had made a pretty awesome fire truck that I wanted to show to the class. My teacher said, “Why are you playing with Lego, those are boys’ toys.” I was crushed, put my truck back in my desk and didn’t show it to the class. That’s 27 years ago and I still am upset by it.

Graham: I remember an afternoon in high school where they divided up the girls and the boys. The girls got lessons on self-defence, but we were also told about how women condition themselves to act differently from men, that women are used to being submissive and the one thing we say too much is “sorry.” Ever since then, I’ve paid very close attention to how many times I say it. It’s a habit ingrained in women from childhood, and even 15 years later, I still have trouble breaking it. Chauvinism always seemed like something my mom told me about. I never really faced it until I started working, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. In the work force, the boys [I went to school with] begin to mingle with the older generation of men who teach them differently. It’s this bleeding over of the generations that’s slowed the equality movement.

Sandberg says that women in business worry too much about being liked, while at the same time saying they have to downplay their ambitions to make sure they aren’t off-putting. A tall order, no?

Hart: Before I started my MBA, I asked for advice from a second-year male on how to fit in and whether gender stereotypes still exist in the MBA. He said yes, they do. He explained to me that a woman who “argues” will kill her future contacts, because she most likely will be alienated and going back to the “boys’ club” is impossible. I was shocked.

Graham: It’s not just that women worry more about being likeable, it’s that they have to worry more about it. I’ve been called a bitch when people don’t like me, and a pitbull when people do. If men act like me, then they’re called assertive. Strong and likeable are just not terms I’ve ever found to be applied at the same time to a woman.

Hart: Sandberg claims that “being liked is a key factor in both professional and personal success” and then teaches us how by thinking personally and acting communally women can achieve that. Like myself, she struggled (and probably still does) with the fear of not being liked. Here she confused me. Aren’t we trying to break the stereotypes that slow us down? I think concentrating so much on how to be liked in negotiations is working against what she wants women to achieve professionally and personally.

Graham: I felt Sandberg was showing how we need to keep the end goal in mind. If I have to smile to get that raise, I’m going to put Vaseline on my teeth if that’s what it takes!

Firer-Gillespie: A lot guys have no concept of the privilege they receive just for being men. Sandberg talks about trying to fit in by smoking a cigar and how uncomfortable it made her. And, sadly, because that’s where so much networking gets done, you have to decide, do I participate or not?

Graham:I have started taking golf lessons because I know how important it is for management to go golfing.

Firer-Gillespie: We’re actually arranging a golf day for the women in our class complete with instruction.

Sandberg stressed that women need to choose their partners carefully. She tells an anecdote about a young woman who tested potential spouses by saying she had to cancel a date for work and seeing how he reacted. Good advice?

Graham: I’m generally opposed to “tests,” but definitely had to admit to the value in that one.

Firer-Gillespie: I think that portion of the book was one of the most reassuring. I’m planning on having a child after the program is done and I’ve gone round and round on timing, what to tell people, and more importantly, how was I going to balance it all. I’m going to stop worrying so much and just trust that I’ll work it out.

Hart: I joke that I’ll just give birth in the board meeting and have a nursery at the office! My mom was building her own business when I was very young and I did miss her a lot. But I realize now that it was not the fact that she was away so much, but the fact that when she was home she continued to worry about work. I think it’s important to keep quality in everything you do and live in the moment.

Sandberg makes the case that with more women in leadership roles the environment will change. She even mentions Marissa Mayer, who was criticized for only taking a few weeks off when she had a baby – but that was her choice, Sandberg argues, and one she didn’t impose on other parents at Yahoo. But now look what’s happened: Mayer has called a halt to flexible work arrangements by forcing everyone to come into the office – and she’s been soundly criticized for it, more so because she has a nursery next to her own office. Fair? Do female executives have a larger responsibility in this areas?

Graham: I think it’s unfair for anyone, man or woman, to dictate how other people should work. If Marissa Mayer doesn’t want to take time off work, that’s her choice, I have no problem with that, but she needs to understand that different people have different priorities. She’s making her working environment into something that works better for men than women.

Firer-Gillespie: I think Meyer made a huge mistake by curtailing the flexible work environment. I think Sandberg said it best when she pulled from General Powell. As long as you’re available when you’re needed, you’re getting your work done, and done well, then why should it matter where you work from? And, I think it was particularly disingenuous for her to make that decision when she has a nursery next to her office. That double standard does nothing to help women, or men who want to balance their work and personal lives better.

Graham: In my family, my mom always earned more than my dad, and it was something we were just not supposed to talk about. Finding a partner who is really a partner, not just a spouse, has always seemed very improbable to me… But Sandberg’s given me a glimmer of hope.

Looking ahead, is there something you’ll do differently having read Lean In?

Graham: I’ve already bookmarked the section about negotiating.

Firer-Gillespie: I’m going to remember [her asking] ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’

Hart: It’s about preparation and also about having guts. My partner always tells me: “How would you act differently if you had one million dollars in your pocket?” so I just imagine that I have nothing to lose.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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