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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)
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)

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

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?

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.

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