Lessons I learnt from Sheryl Sandberg … and here’s the first two

June 15, 2016

We need to unlearn what we have been taught throughout our lives; that it’s wrong to be outspoken and powerful

If you were asked to name someone who worked at Facebook, who would come to mind? I suspect the majority of us would say ‘Mark Zuckerberg’, which is understandable. Sadly, very few of us would proudly say, ‘Sheryl Sandberg’.

Sheryl is the Chief Operating Officer who has been working alongside Mark Zuckerberg since 2008. She can be credited with turning Facebook into a profitable business and she was the first woman to be elected to their Board of Directors.

Sandberg is an activist, working hard to close the gender leadership gap. She has written a groundbreaking international bestseller, Lean In  – Women, Work and the Will to Lead. The book not only questions our current approach, but also provides some practical solutions for individuals, parents, education institutions and corporations.

I have taken a lot from this book and wanted to share this with you over a number of posts. Here’s the first couple of lessons I have taken from it:

1) We need to unlearn what we have been taught

In her book, Sheryl discusses how ‘A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.’ In addition to this problem, women generally downplay their achievements. So it’s a double whammy. At least the second part is within our control.

However we need to unlearn what we have been taught throughout our lives; that it’s wrong to be outspoken and powerful. Girls are usually called ‘bossy’ if they try to lead, whereas boys are praised when they show they are the boss.

Teased for being smart in the school yard

Some sections brought tears to my eyes. Sandberg’s personal experiences brought back my own memories of being teased at school by boys for being smart. They called me ‘Spock’ and it was very upsetting, but I was told to just ignore them and keep working. I wish I’d stood up for myself back then.

The teachers also should have been more vocal. Being taught to accept that treatment and take it in silence has had long-lasting effects. I also learnt that being smart didn’t make me likeable to boys!

Being smart in the workplace

Sheryl Sandberg covers this topic in her chapter on ‘Success and Likeability’ where she states that studies have shown ‘‘success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.

I knew that men didn’t like successful women, but the second part of the revelation shook me to the core. Why don’t women like women who are successful?

2) There is gender bias in performance appraisals

Sandberg also explains that this gender bias filters down into performance appraisals, which also astounded me. Why is it acceptable for a woman’s personality to be attacked in performance reviews (by both male and female managers), and yet men are evaluated more on work performance?

Again, I realised that I had been in a similar situation. I thought that personality was a key criteria in performance appraisals for everyone, but after reading Lean In, I realise it was more likely gender bias.

My experience. Has this happened to you?

In one of my previous roles, a male member on another team, with less qualifications and experience, had been promoted to a senior position. I thought I had to prove myself, so I worked ridiculous overtime for over a year.

I was feeling confident going into the annual review, because our team was bringing in more money than ever before, but instead of acknowledging the new contracts I had brought in, I was instead told in my review: ‘No-one likes working with you Anne’. This was from a senior female manager!

Fortunately, it was completely fabricated. It was just her own opinion. I received multiple written appraisals from team members and clients who said they loved working with me. However this manager had obviously taken a disliking to me.

She continued the review by saying that my ‘soft skills’ needed addressing before I could be promoted. It was so unjust. I wish I had read this book beforehand. I would have stood my ground, discussed what I had achieved, and persevered until achieving the results I deserved. Instead, I went home, cried and cried, and I eventually quit. Unfortunately, this is a common scenario.

The constant battle wears many women down and they give up trying to reach senior positions. You might find this TED discussion with Sheryl of interest.

Next post, I will discuss more of my learnings and Sheryl’s views on fear and how it is a major stumbling block for women.

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