Channeling Sheryl Sandberg’s brother

In a TED Talk on why we have too few female leaders, Sheryl Sandberg makes some observations on women in the workplace and how this relates the absence of female leadership in business and politics.

In one story, she tells about a time in college when she was taking a course on European Intellectual History with her friend Carrie and her brother.  As she tells it –

Carrie reads all the books in the original Greek and Latin and goes to all the lectures.  I read all the books in English and go to most of the lectures.  My brother is kind of busy, he reads one book of 12 and goes to a couple of lectures…

The three of us go to the exam together, and we sit down for 3 hours [writing] in our little blue notebooks… and we walk out and look at each other and say, “How did you do?”

And Carrie says, “Boy, I feel like I didn’t really draw out the main point on the Hegelian dialectic.”  And I say, “God, I really wish I had really connected John Locke’s theory of property with the philosophers that follow.”  And my brother says, “I got the top grade in the class.”  “You got the top grade in the class?  You don’t know anything!”

The problem with these stories is that they show what the data shows – women systematically underestimate their own abilities.

Sandberg goes on to talk about how this mentality leads to more men negotiating their first salary than their female counterparts.  When I first watched this lecture last year, I was the only female member of a management team working in a male-dominated sector.  This story made me examine my position relative to my male coworkers.  I had been working there longer, was adding equal value and putting in longer hours, but the boys were earning more.

At the time, I thought that if I just worked a little harder, my boss would see that I was on par with these boys and give me that raise and title bump.  He didn’t.  He wasn’t going to.

When I realized that, I played hardball for the first time in my career.  My boss said his hands were tied – there was nothing he could do.  I called his bluff and politely handed in my resignation.  Within a week he had rewritten the staffing guidelines to give me more than I’d requested, in terms of both salary and responsibility.  Which was great because I didn’t really have a plan B.

And when I got that raise and that promotion, it felt good, but also a little shitty.  Why couldn’t the leadership see that their practices were gender-biased, and why did I have to quit before things changed?  And why hadn’t I played hardball before accepting the job?  The blame was at least in part on my shoulders because I should have negotiated my salary and title at the start instead of waiting for a year to speak up.

Over the last year, though, I have learned to channel my masculine side.  I’ve become an effective delegator, especially of tasks that I don’t really want to do.  I can sometimes be a real hardass.  And I’ve learned that it’s an excellent time management skill to put in fewer hours – if you have less time to spend on something, you learn how to prioritize the essential and stop micromanaging.

And in my schoolwork, I have also decided that less is more – Sandberg’s brother was just putting his effort where it would be maximized.  So, I watch lectures from my bed at 2x speed and sometimes read the abstract instead of the full paper.  And as I do this, I know that most of my male classmates will do the same and get through class discussion with a wink and a smile and still understand the fundamentals, while the females will spend hours emailing the professor and reading and annotating the paper.

Women are taught early on that to overcome gender bias, we have to work twice as hard as men.  But often times it’s not hard work — it’s interpersonal skills, trust, and rapport — that really determines a person’s success as a leader.  If females are busy dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, they lose out on the chance to build relationships and understand how much intangible factors can play a role in success.  We get so focused on perfecting the little picture that we forget to look at how it all fits together.

Maybe this is why Harold is seen as a great guy while Heidi is out for herself – maybe we know people like Heidi, and they don’t focus on building rapport and trust with us, but instead spend time reading the literature in original Latin and Greek to get ahead.  I mean, who does that?!

Now if only I could shake the feeling of inadequacy when I walk into biochem without having an annotated paper to reference – I need to remember that it’s my understanding of the concepts that matters, not the amount of time spent preparing.  And if I fall short, a wink and a smile might help.

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