I often say, only somewhat facetiously, that I started my company because I was tired of mumbling apologetic answers to cocktail-party questions about what I did for a living. Although I had a lot of valuable work experience in my twenties, including working at a computer-animation firm, and as a media ad scheduler, I spent much of those years working under potential and without a clear sense of direction. I’d studied folklore and popular culture at Brown University, and I loved it, but I wasn’t especially drawn to the fields of academia and entertainment where my degree might have been most valued and applicable. (It worked out in the end: the search and social online world is nothing if not a continual study of folkways, pop culture, and urban mythology.) To pursue the type of challenge office life presented an MBA was in order.
Getting an MBA at the Carlson School of Management was one of the best decisions of my life, and it put me on the path to running an agency that now employs 31 people. These days I’m excited to tell people what I do (I’m usually disappointed if no one asks), and I don’t think I talk about my work with undue modesty. I usually mention our current employee count, indicate that we’ve grown, usually slip in the names of a few clients. But if the conversation continues, especially if someone seems impressed, I’ll almost always attribute my success to three main factors: I work hard and, especially in the startup phase, logged insanely long hours; I lucked out by getting in the right industry at the right time; and I’ve gotten invaluable support from my staff, family, mentors, and friends. Maybe you’ve heard me say “I’m just a figurehead.”
So I was interested to read in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s much-publicized new book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” that these sort of explanations are commonly cited by successful women, less so by successful men. Ask a man to explain his success,” Sandberg writes, “and he will typically credit his own innate qualities and skills. Ask a woman the same question and she will attribute her success to external factors, insisting she did well because she ‘worked really hard,’ or ‘got lucky,’ or ‘had help from others.’” Sandberg makes clear that in her case, as in mine, this is all accurate, to a point: hard work is obviously key to success; a certain amount of luck typically comes into play; and no one does it alone. I certainly couldn’t have done this without my incredible colleagues and supportive husband, and I’m not sure I could have lifted myself out of poverty to the corner office if I hadn’t had a middle-class background to begin with (my office is actually nowhere near a corner, but you get the idea).
But of course Sandberg is right, too, that all of these explanations downplay one’s abilities. Don’t look to my innate intelligence or talent, one seems to be saying, it’s more that I rebooted my laptop after dinner; it’s not that I identified an exciting field with high growth potential, it’s that I stumbled into one, like someone finding a winning lottery ticket in a snowbank; I’m not really so great, I’m just surrounded by the right people.
In my case, this brand of self-presentation might be regional as well as gendered. In light of dramatically increased mobility and diversity, we’re right to be skeptical about regional characteristics and stereotypes, but it probably remains true that tooting one’s horn is somewhat frowned on in the Midwest, except on Facebook. (We Minnesotans like to especially remind folks of this humility: proud modesty, like passive aggression, is one of our great paradoxes.) But I think it has something to do with being an ambitious woman and yet wanting on the whole to be liked, of wanting to stand out — but not too much. As Sandberg reminds us, leadership qualities seen as admirable or at least standard in men are often seen as unsavory in women. A skillful male negotiator might be seen as tactical, strategic; his female counterpart, calculating, just as when we were kids the boy leaders were usually popular while the girl leaders were resented for bossiness. Sandberg writes well about the constant pressure women are under to be nice. We must find an ingratiating tone and be vigilant smilers, since we’re always one step away from being seen as unlikable (“You’re likable enough, Hilary,” said a campaigning Barack Obama, and many of us heard, “You’re not really such a bitch”).
These are just a few of the issues Sandberg addresses in “Lean In.” She encourages women to be advocates for themselves and for others, to not drop out of the workforce in mere anticipation of raising a family, to choose partners who will embrace a truly equal distribution of domestic work, to remember that a working woman is not ipso facto a harried and insufficient mom, to think beyond “work/life balance” toward a more realistically integrated view (work, after all, is part of life, not only where we earn the means to live it). Women have made amazing gains during my lifetime, thanks largely to the work of my mother’s generation, but we still earn considerably less than men (as of 2010, 77 cents for every dollar earned by men) and are vastly underrepresented in government and C-level positions (only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women). Sandberg isn’t denying the huge institutional, systemic obstacles that continue to block full gender equality, nor is she saying that every woman should have her sights on leadership positions in business and government. But I think she’s right that some of the obstacles we face as women are internal, that we continue to undervalue and undersell ourselves, that too often we hold back when we could be “leaning in,” and that in addition to challenging the status quo, we must challenge ourselves.
That being said, I should probably point out some of our amazing case studies.