Last term I considered several different ideas for articles, developed them in my mind then hastily struck them down. Weeks passed and I still remained reluctant to put my pitch forward. I was certainly busy at times but on reflection I must admit that fear was the ultimate barrier preventing me from stepping up: Would my article be too controversial? ‘You can’t possibly write for the paper, leave it to the intellectuals.’ And of course I unwisely entertained these doubts further, watching the stream of hateful comments attacking my imagined article.
It is this debilitating self-doubt experienced by many women in schools, homes and boardrooms that Cheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, explores and challenges in her groundbreaking book ‘Lean in’. My expectation was that Sandberg, armed with her Harvard degree and wealth of business experience, would be fully secure in her abilities, fostering internally the confidence she exudes publically. Yet her story surprised and comforted me as she revealed that she had experienced the same fears and insecurities in the boardroom that I had in the classroom.
‘Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter’
Although gender equality has improved significantly in recent years the number of women in boardrooms across the world fails to reflect these improvements. “Of the top 500 companies by revenues, only 21 are headed by women and of 197 heads of state, only 22 are women.” Sandberg argues that women are generally much more tentative than men to assert their value, whether that means asking for a promotion, putting ideas forward or just sitting at the head of the table. This factor, as well as several other important problems such as issues with public policy and childcare, has held women back, and has subsequently led to a global shortage in female leaders.
For me the challenge of ‘leaning in’ is a difficult one. I came to Oxford from a school where there were many talented girls who refused to admit the extent of their successes. Modesty and humility are important and admirable qualities; however, the unhealthy culture of self-deprecation that is so prevalent among women is not conducive to nurturing the skills and confidence often required of an effective leader. As Sandberg notes, “women systematically underestimate their own abilities”, and she supports her argument with evidence of studies which show that men in general evaluate objective criteria about themselves slightly higher than their female counterparts.
Drawing inspiration from Sandberg, I see the importance of being able to confidently promote myself, especially in the competitive corporate world. Yet the challenge for change is certainly not limited to the individual. There must also be a change in how female leadership is perceived by others. In a study conducted by Stanford Business School, a group of students were given a case study about a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Heidi Roizen. The other half of the class were given the same case study with the name tweaked to Howard Roizen. The students were harsher on Heidi than on Howard. The professor’s conclusion was this: “Although they think she’s just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her. They disliked Heidi’s aggressive personality.”
As Sandberg argues, “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” This is a challenge that aspiring female leaders may come to face at some point or another in their careers. The fear of my assertive behaviour being misinterpreted as arrogant or aggressive certainly holds me back. However, I hope that these fears will eventually subside as I actively practise stepping forward, whether that simply means speaking up, applying for the internships I want or asking questions in class without unnecessarily apologising afterwards. Upon entering into 2014, I struggled to come up with a New Year’s resolution, but inspired by Sandberg’s message of optimism, I finally resolved to ‘lean in’, and to do so unapologetically.