Lean In

Here are some things I have been told over the past seven years, intended as well-meaning career advice from fellow women:

‘Get as high up the career ladder as fast as you can. Once you have children, that’s it. You’re not getting promoted.’

 

‘Have children before you’re thirty if you can. Or as close to thirty as possible. It’s so much harder after thirty.’

 

‘Everything changes when you have kids. Your priorities change. You won’t care as much about your career after.’

 

Since watching the Saudi Arabian film ‘Wadjda’ when first moving to London, I became interested in broadening my outlook. The film alerted me to the savage inequalities women face across the globe, and prompted me to read into the genre of ‘feminist literature.’ I learned that women are less likely to reach the top of their professions, are overwhelmingly saddled with domestic burdens, are judged by their looks, pressured to conform to a socially acceptable appearance, and then treated inappropriately when they did. The picture seemed bleak, and, like Katie Ashford argues, perhaps too much focus on the evils of patriarchy actually disempowers women.

For me, Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ was a revelation. The focus of this book is not on the passive: ‘what is happening to women?’ but on the active: ‘what can we do to succeed against the odds?’ Here are the lessons I learned:

Be ambitious: there are not enough women leaders, and the solution is to become a female leader. Society might judge you for your ambition (how many women have experienced, as I have, leaving a job for a promotion to have the word ‘ambitious’ spat at you like it is a dirty word?); cultivate it anyway.

Be present: too many women suffer from ‘imposter syndrome.’ Be confident that you deserve to be a voice which is heard. Some of the best feedback I received after an unsuccessful interview was: ‘don’t be afraid to tell us what you really think. You’re asked a question, we want to hear your answer.’ Underlying my reticence was possibly the ‘why do they care what I think?’ Such an attitude holds us back.

Be likeable: unfortunately, successful women are not as liked. This is a horrifying truth: blind tests of the same CV with the name changed from ‘Howard’ to ‘Heidi’ showed that among subjects of both genders, the woman was considered less likeable than the man. Assertive women are ‘aggressive,’ ‘bossy.’ Mentioning previous successes in an interview actually makes you less likely to be hired, but only if you are a woman. This is awful, but perhaps we need to just be aware and play this game to our advantage: be likeable, get the job.

Be decisive: when Sandberg was offered a lower-level job at Google in the company’s early days, she took it, even though it was a demotion. She cites the CEO telling her: ‘if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.’ Rather than scrambling up the ladder, not looking around you, sometimes you take a different path: after all, in the rush to achieve we are not always contributing the most we can in the most innovative ventures.

Be honest: great communication is predicated on honesty. How often do we (not just women) side-step the truth because it is difficult? A culture of candour respects the truth of all parties, it looks to listen and understand, but not refrain from confronting hard truths on all sides. Sandberg writes: ‘“How can I do better?” What am I doing that I don’t know?” “What am I not doing that I don’t see?” These questions can lead to so many benefits,’ despite how painful it is to hear such truths.

Be committed: Sandberg cites examples of women who ‘leave before they leave,’ mentally committing to the family and children they, in some cases, do not even have; turning down promotions because they worry about balancing work and home. She sees this as one reason women choose to not return to work after having children: their jobs just were not challenging enough.

Be savvy: Or, in Sanberg’s words, ‘Make your partner a real partner’: choose to be with someone who supports you in your career. A partner who insists you do 100% of the chores and take 100% of the children’s sick days yourself and raise each child 100% alone is not someone who can support you to achieve your full potential. Choose wisely!

Work harder: Sandberg outlines just how hard it is to be a great mother and great in the office, and admits you will be unlikely to excel equally in both. For Sandberg, it becomes about ‘guilt management’ and understanding that, for a short time, you will always feel like you are failing in one or both spheres. But what can you do about that? Just keep working harder. And, presumably, accepting help!

Support each other: Women are too often each other’s worst critics. We need to champion each other, support each other, and celebrate each other’s successes. We need to team together, not cut each other down from the sidelines.

So, back to those questions which have haunted me:

‘Get as high up the career ladder as fast as you can. Once you have children, that’s it. You’re not getting promoted.’

 

‘Have children before you’re thirty if you can. Or as close to thirty as possible. It’s so much harder after thirty.’

 

‘Everything changes when you have kids. Your priorities change. You won’t care as much about your career after.’

Like men, I need to be in no rush to achieve. This self-focused approach will not allow me to learn the most or contribute the most in education. There is no rush, because children need to happen at the right time, not because the ‘thirty alarm’ has gone off. And perhaps everything will change, and perhaps I won’t care about my career. But that may be as much a societal construct as the expectation that I wear make-up and high heels and my male partner does not. Ultimately: none of these are comments a man would receive. None of these are worries a man would have. We need to reject these worries: gender should not be what defines us.

Lean In

Advertisements

Recommended reads of 2014

This is something of a self-indulgent post, wherein I round up the best books I’ve read this year. In the past, I’ve stuck rigidly to my triumvirate of reading: one education book, one book for children (fiction), one book for grown-ups (fiction or non-fiction). I’ve let this slide somewhat for 2014; there is a definite bias towards fun fiction, perhaps an upshot of going on not one but two beach holidays, each involving a stack of paperbacks. For that reason, I’ll stick with two categories: fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction

Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye

It seems unbelievable to me now that the only Atwood I had read prior to this year was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I hated. I saw this book on a list of “realistic representations of girls in school” and, eager to gain an insight into my students (having been both female and a school child, I am constantly concerned I have subsequently unlearned all aspects of each) I picked this book up. It is a gorgeously rendered exploration of childhood, change and femininity.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This is sheer entertainment, and very much ties into my new-found interest in crime drama in general. The kind of book which, as you read it, you feel as though you are, in fact, watching it – that is how little effort it requires.

Sapphire: Push

I’d seen the film Precious, but the book is a much richer and more uplifting portrayal of the life of the central character. I wept at the bleakness of everything at the close of the film; ending this book I felt the opposite. There’s so much hope here, and it is cleverly expressed.

 R.J. Palacio: Wonder

Another book crammed with hope and inspiration, though never cloying – the central character feels realistically drawn; imperfect, self-aware. This was the book I recommended all of key stage 3 to read over the summer, and the one most students have run up to me to tell me they have read and loved.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

I really feel this is the 1984 of our time: a novel of the internet age, taking on every facet of life in a digital world. The silicon valley world feels real here, and if the love interest falls flat it does so for good reason.

John Green and David Levithan: Will Grayson Will Grayson

The imagination in this book is inspiring, and it’s a nifty venture – two authors writing consecutive chapters from different perspectives. The message is one of acceptance and love, and is one children and adults can learn a lot from.

Carys Bray: A Song for Issy Bradley

The tale of a mother dealing with grief in the context of her husband’s Mormon beliefs taught me a great deal about both. This was one of those books which left me feeling empty when it had ended; as if I couldn’t believe those characters had gone from my life.

Laura Wade: Posh

I missed seeing Wade’s play, and I’m sure reading it cannot compare; yet this play was so stark and so heinous, it made me really actually angry. But angry in a really good way.

Non-fiction

Martin Robinson: Trivium 21C

Robinson’s was the first book I read in 2014, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year. The book is both a vision of how education ought to be, and full enough of personal insight to feel like a friendly conversation. One for re-reading into 2015.

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

I’m confused that so many people have strong emotions about Lean In, because I couldn’t see the controversy. This book felt like some really honest reflections about what it takes to be a successful woman, and the choices and mindset necessary.

Heather Kirn Lanier: Teaching in the Terrordome

I’m a sucker for a teaching memoir, and I’m a sucker for anything American. (what is the American version of a Francophile, a propos of nothing? I am that.) Lanier’s depiction of her Baltimore experience of Teach for America made me reevaluate everything I thought possible in my classroom.

 Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala

Of course, Malala is a complete inspiration for us all, but I would argue especially so for young women. This poignant and beautifully written book has been shared with all of my classes across the age groups of the school.

 Graham Nuthall: The Hidden Lives of Learners

I found this way of looking at the way children learn extraordinary. It made me consider that we probably do need to be much more careful about the evidence surrounding the way we educate, and left me with a lot of lovely quotable nuggets I have not hesitated to roll out in too many conversations.

Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

I’m not sure how, but the Romantics are a big gap in my literary knowledge. Preparing to teach Frankenstein to year 13, I sought to remedy this, and found in this particular volume a veritable sit-com of real-life entertainment.

Daisy Christodoulou: Seven Myths About Education

I wasn’t at all sure I would enjoy this book, as I’m not altogether fond of controversy or conflict, and it had felt to me that this book incited (or invited?) both, but after hearing Christodoulou sounding ever so likeable on the radio I decided to give it a go. Thank goodness – there’s nothing controversial here, just sensible observations on education, written in sparse prose (NO superfluous words – not even one).