Yesterday I started listening to “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.  Due to glaucoma,  I now find it easier to listen to audio books than read especially if I have been working on the computer all day.  It takes longer and I have to replay some parts, but I’m enjoying the process.

So far I’m only through Chapter 2  since listening takes much longer than reading (I haven’t yet been able to listen effectively to 1.5 or 2x speed and learn anything).   Much of what Sheryl Sandberg talks about is familiar to me after 38 years in a heavily male dominated workplace like the US Army and Department of Defense.  I plan to do some blogging as I read and will share some of my own personal experiences as I go.  I was partly inspired to write these thoughts by an awesome letter by Phyllis Richman 52 years after the event that changed her career plans.  I would encourage you to take the time to read this letter.

As I listened to Lean In, some key points emerged:

* Chapter 1 – Women have to do better than men in the workplace. Men are promoted based on potential while women are based on performance.  Early in my Army career (started in 1975), it became obvious that women always had to do about 110% whereas men could by with 80%.  I reported to my first assignment with a male counterpart.   I had completed  specialty training by graduating in the top 20% whereas my male colleague had failed the courses once before finally passing.  But that detail didn’t matter – no commander wanted the  female 2nd Lieutenant.  So I was thrown to the least politically astute commander (ultimately to the chagrin of the commander who got the male 1st Lieutenant).   I didn’t know this till about a year afterward when the other commander apologized for his biased mindset.  The lesson learned here is that you never know when your performance can change someone’s mind.

* Chapter 2 – Getting ahead in your career requires taking risks and advocating for oneself – both traits that women are not encouraged to learn. I think this is partly true – women are encouraged to take risks for the family but are expected to be self-sacrificing with no need for the skill to advocate for oneself.     Women are willing to take risks but sometimes get locked into a mental model that says they can’t without upsetting the family.  I think that Phyllis Richman’s letter highlights that even in a family setting, women can take risks to have a rich career and still maintain a great home life.   However, I totally agree with the lack of skill or experience to advocate for oneself.  I have seen this so often with many extremely competent women and experienced it myself.   This is a rich topic worth exploring more later so I’m not going to say much now.   However, about three years ago there was a lot of discussion on Twitter as to why there were more men than women speakers at conferences (especially technical conferences). Many factors played into that but one of the key areas of consensus was that women didn’t advocate for themselves as speakers.  And in most cases they weren’t aware that they needed to or how to acquire the experience to do that.  I know from personal experience that I don’t advocate for myself as I should.  I know my abilities and potential and expect that others should be able to see them without trying to sell myself.  Yet I can recognize when I see women who do it gracefully.  Perhaps this is something where mentors can help.

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