Thursday, August 22, 2013

Two books, same great message, ten ideas for further thought

This month I read two books that were highly recommended reads by the publishing marketing machine's strongest tool, bookclubs: Tina Fey's Bossypants (2011) and Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In (2013). In a New York Times interview in March 2013, Sandberg admitted to reading and loving Bossypants, but I never realized until I'd read it myself how both books have the same core message.

Nothing is going to change for women in the workplace until women take their place there as leaders.

Neither Tina Fey or Sheryl Sandberg argue that educating ourselves about sexism and legislating against sexism are not effective ways of combating it. However, both women write from personal experience that some sexism is simply the result of a lack of women in that workplace rather than misogynist impulses. Sandberg recounts how she discovered the need for preference parking for pregnant employees at Google only when she was heavily pregnant herself. It had simply never occurred to her that walking across a large parking lot while pregnant could be a problem. Fey explains how the standard improvisation group setup (four men and two women) grew out of a concern on the part of male writers that there wouldn't be enough roles for more women. Fey challenged this notion by pointing out that the very nature of improv comedy was to improvise. Why not improvise more roles for women? In both instances a policy changed because a woman with authority in the workplace wanted to improve her situation, not because someone noticed a lack of opportunity or difficult working conditions and thought, "Hey, we should help them out." Sandberg and Fey are not feminist activists, but they both have done a great deal to raise awareness of feminists issues, particularly those related to women with careers.

Here are ten ideas Fey and Sandberg highlight in their books:

1. Bossy versus leader

Tina Fey uses 'bossy' in her title and Sheryl Sandberg recounts being told as a child she was bossy because she liked to manage the playtime activities of her siblings and friends. Both women call into question the subtle message we give to girls by using this word, namely that telling people what to do is a negative quality. When boys act bossy, we praise them for being leaders, a positive message that reinforces stereotypes about the nature of females and males.

2. Marrying a man who supports your career

Sandberg calls this the biggest career choice a woman can make and both she and Fey credit their husbands with actively supporting their careers. Sandberg's husband takes on an equal amount of childcare and doesn't whine that she is away on business too often. Fey's husband is her business partner, composing the music for 30 Rock and even acting in some episodes. Both couples see themselves as a team of equals. Neither David Goldberg or Jeff Richmond are diminished by having powerful and famous wives. Both men regularly praise the work their wife does and attend functions in which she is publicly recognized for her contributions to her field. These are men who are proud of, rather than threatened by, their wife's success.

3. Allowing yourself to feel guilty about letting others be the primary caregivers of your children, but not letting that guilt hold you back

Sandberg and Fey both have young children. They write in their books about feeling conflicted about the time they spend working and handing the care of their children over to others. Fey admits that she can't bring herself to use the word 'nanny' even though her babysitter is essentially that. These women have cried in their offices, pulled all-nighters, worked from home, and considered professionally scaling back. But they didn't. They don't let mommy guilt hold them back from their careers. And why should they? Men don't. Which brings us to the next point...

4. The inherent sexism of asking a working woman how she manages it all

When asked what it's like to be the boss and how she manages it all, Tina Fey tells her readers that only the rules of civility prevent her from throwing the question back at the person who asked it. "Would you ever ask that of Donald Trump?" she writes. Asking a woman about being a boss is subtly implying that this is an odd position for her to be in and that she may not be up to the task. Asking her how she manages it all is making the assumption that she is working on two fronts: work and home. No one makes these assumptions of men. No one wonders how a male CEO or executive producer finds the time to mow the lawn or coach his kids' little league team. Sheryl Sandberg makes the point that when more women are in leadership positions, questions like this will no longer be asked. People will see that women are managing it all. They won't think it odd that a woman wields power in the workplace or has a husband or nanny at home minding the kids.

5. Mentors

Tina Fey writes quite a bit about the guidance she received from Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live. He hired her as the first female head writer for SNL and later encouraged her to take her career to the next level by creating her own show, 30 Rock. Sheryl Sandberg credits many mentors, but the most well-known among them is economist Larry Summers. The very fact of these mentors being male negates the idea that all men in high-powered positions are sexist or that a woman needs a female mentor in order to understand her. Fey and Sandberg write that their mentors believed in them and pushed them to take on new projects and jobs. Neither mentor tried to take advantage of the power dynamic to sleep with Fey or Sandberg. The thing about mentors, Sandberg says, is that you can't force that relationship. Asking someone to mentor you so you can become fabulous is the wrong way to think about mentors. You have to BE fabulous first, or at least show your potential to be fabulous. Then the mentors will come to you.

6. A commitment to providing opportunities for other women in the field

Despite their positive experiences with male mentors, Fey and Sandberg have made a commitment to providing opportunities for women in their fields. This is the kind of active leadership they both write about - women helping women. Sandberg cautions, however, that women must also help themselves. Too often women do not 'lean into' their careers when they could. More about this in the next point.

7. Not planning your career around children who are not born yet

Sandberg writes extensively about young women who make the mistake of planning their careers around non-existent families. Women who are not even dating hold themselves back from taking on too much work responsibility because someday they may want to spend more time with a husband or children. In this way, women are often their own worst enemy when it comes to killing their careers. Worse than that, they perpetuate the stereotype that all women are more interested in domestic life than in having a career. Tina Fey's approach to this issue was more personal. At the end of Bossypants she writes about her struggle with whether or not to have a second child. One of her concerns was that her job at 30 Rock took up a lot of her time. In the end, she delayed production of 30 Rock, had a second child, completed the last season of 30 Rock, and then decided to focus her career on film roles. Having a second child did not stagnate her career, it helped her decide to move it in a different direction.

8. Truly listening to your colleagues and acting on what you learn from them

Tina Fey writes that improv forces you to really listen to what others are saying and to respond to it creatively, rather than shutting down the dialogue. In her Actor's Studio interview, she explained how if your improv partner says, "Here is an apple." You might respond, "Oh, the one we are going to poison the queen with?" An example of the type of response that shuts down the dialogue is this: "That's not an apple." Improv helped Fey be a good colleague and boss. So much of TV writing is done in groups, she writes. In fact, the only time she wrote alone was in writing Bossypants. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg has a lot to say about learning to listen and respond creatively. She tells stories of her failures to listen and how these failures taught her to listen more broadly to employees rather listening only to official communications. Her point is that business is a collaboration, not a dictatorship. When all the people at the table lean in and speak up, the project has a better chance of success. In addition, employees who feel listened to are happier and more productive.

9. More often than not, done is better than perfect

I love this one, which is a quote from Sheryl Sandberg. On one level it is a great coping mechanism for busy people who cannot possibly keep an immaculate household, prepare gourmet meals, and run successful businesses. Superwoman is not a role model, she is the enemy of women according to Sandberg. Being perfect is a trap. Perfection is an obstacle to progress. Women need to allow themselves to be good enough and move on. In the workplace, this mantra is also very useful. Tina Fey writes about agonizing over skits for SNL into Saturday afternoon. Eventually, she realized that a skit that was done is much more useful to the show than a perfect skit lying unfinished on her desk. She says that some of her skits were good and others not so good. She's proud of the good ones and doesn't beat herself up over the not good ones.

10. Knowing when to move on

Both Fey and Sandberg write quite a bit about career decisions. The most important lesson they offer is discerning when to move on to a new job. The new job is almost always a risk like when Fey left SNL to start up her own show or when Sandberg left Google to join Facebook, still in its early days. Both women were attracted to the potential for growth in their new jobs. They gave up the security of a well-established company for the potential of a start-up. How did they know it was time to leave? Fey writes that Lorne Michaels suggested she do her own TV show which led to Fey moving on from her SNL job. On the other hand, leaving 30 Rock was precipitated by the birth of her second child. Sandberg has held several different positions in the business world including finance, sales, and operations. Each job change meant learning a new set of skills. Sandberg thrives on this kind of intellectual challenge because she is most creative when she is learning something new. And with each move, she makes herself more valuable as an employee. She knows it's time to move on when she has learned all she can from her current position.

I admire Tina Fey and Sheryl Sandberg for their using their success to open doors for other women. They had lots of help getting to where they are, but they also leaned into their careers, worked hard, and took risks. Not every woman can be or wants to be a leader, but all women can stop telling little girls they're bossy. We can stop asking working mothers how they manage it all. We can raise children to see the natural order as people cooperating rather than men making most of the decisions and women sighing and going along with them. We can try to suppress our own sexism, catching ourselves before making comments about a female leader's looks or time away from her children. We can remind ourselves that a high voice is not an indication of low intelligence. And every day we can be fabulous even if we are not perfect.

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