“Internal obstacles are rarely discussed and often underplayed. Throughout my life, I was told over and over about inequalities in the workplace and how hard it would be to have a career and a family. I rarely heard anything, however, about the ways I might hold myself back. These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control.”
The above quote from this work of 184 pages by Sheryl Sandberg accurately sums up both why this book has been heavily criticized and why it comes highly recommended. The primary criticism levelled against this book is the perception that Sandberg places the onus of fixing the problem of gender inequality on women and takes away responsibility from the structures/institutions that perpetuate inequality. On the other hand, the book comes highly recommended for its ability to encourage personal responsibility and motivation to women in achieving their goals.
I disagree with this criticism; I did not get the sense that Sandberg’s intention is to absolve these structures/institutions from acknowledging their role in perpetuating inequality nor does she encourage women to stop challenging those structures. Instead, what she does is to offer us a different approach to the fight against gender inequality, an approach which requires one to become conscious of their own limiting behaviours, work on those and use that to take up space and create space for other women.
So, what does it mean to lean in?
The action of leaning in means to propel yourself forward. Sandberg’s concept means to go forward, courageously, confidently without hesitation/fear in the pursuit of your goals.
How do we begin to lean in?
As stated above, we can begin to lean in by acknowledging our own internal obstacles and working through those. She places fear at the centre of women’s inability to lean in, “fear is the root of so many 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.”
In her book she provides examples of fear based decisions made by women and presents the “lean in” solution to that decision. I have chosen the following examples to show how we can begin to lean in.
- Sit at the table:
To illustrate how women make fear based decisions, Sandberg recalls a meeting she hosted; where executives and their teams from across Silicon Valley were invited. One of the executives arrived with four women who were members of his staff, when the meeting began everyone took their seats at the table but these four women chose to sit in chairs off the side of the room.
When she invited them to take a seat at the table they still chose not to. For Sandberg this illustrated how in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within. All four of those women were qualified, had the experience and every right to sit at that table. The decision to not take a seat at the table is attributed to “feeling like a fraud” or the imposter syndrome. “Women tend to feel fraudulent when praised for their accomplishments, they feel undeserving/unworthy of recognition, they consistently undermine themselves and always judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their performance as better than it actually is.”
The feelings described above are familiar to both men and women but it is argued that women feel them more intensely than men. For us in the legal profession, these feelings may present themselves as we begin our articles of clerkship, pupilage, or the many other roles available in the legal profession. It specifically means that at any and every point in your career there will be rooms/tables that you will feel unqualified to be in/sit at. You will doubt yourself and the hard work you put in to get to where you are. Fear will make you want to choose the “chairs off the side of the room”. The advice is, rather choose to lean in by choosing to remember the time, the effort and work you have put in to pass your LLB degree, the time and effort you took to apply and present yourself for an interview that got you the position you are now occupying, remember your own capabilities. Lean in by taking initiative and seeking out new challenges, do not say no to opportunities just because its not what you studied or you do not feel ready. Lean in by choosing to learn and making an opportunity fit for you and if that does not work, in Sandberg’s wise words “fake confidence until you feel confident.”
The idea is not to create a sense of false power or to ignore the external obstacles that feed our feelings of unworthiness. To lean in is an opportunity to make a different choice, a choice to feed the positive feelings which are; you are qualified and deserving to be where you are, you are capable and can succeed. To lean in is to make the choice to reject fear as the dictator of your life.
- Are you my mentor?
Another fear based decision that women tend to make is seeking mentorship from any stranger who seems like the perfect mentor. Sandberg argues that this is so because women are advised that in order to climb the corporate ladder, they need to find mentors. She describes the search for a mentor as being the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.
Sandberg acknowledges the importance of mentorship but cautions the approach we have to it. She cautions against the thinking that asking any stranger “will you be my mentor?” will lead to the development of a meaningful and beneficial connection. She argues for approaching mentorship in the following ways:
- Excel and you will get a mentor: she proposes that woman focus on their performance and potential, use their time well and be truly open to feedback.
- Plan: Preparation is important when seeking a mentor. You have the opportunity to capture someone’s attention when you plan and tailor your approach to that individual. It is important to figure out what you want to do before you ask to be mentored so that you are not just seeking general guidance but are able to pinpoint the specific guidance you require.
At most points in our legal careers, we will require mentorship. Sandberg’s approach is that we lean in by taking control and planning for the kind of mentorship relationship we want to have, being intentional about how and why we want to be mentored by a specific individual and choosing to be excellent in all we do so that we may attract excellent mentors instead of believing that we will only become excellent when we receive mentorship. By approaching mentorship in this way, we focus less on the label and more on the relationship.
The above are just two of the many topics explored in this book, each topic is likely to be relevant to the reader at different stages in their life and career. Sandberg may define what leaning in looks like for her but much like any other concept, you must modify it and make it work for you and your life, you decide what leaning in looks like for you. Though the book falls short as it does not highlight issues of race and class that may make leaning in difficult, or fully delve into how women who choose to be stay home wives are also leaning in; it has certainly assisted me in acknowledging how some decisions are fear based and it has provided me with tools to choose courage instead. Whatever route you choose in your legal career there will be external obstacles, I believe it is worthwhile to work through your internal obstacles so that you may be better equipped to deal with the external ones. That is the purpose of leaning in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nthabiseng Motsie is a 29 year old second year Candidate Attorney, currently serving her Articles of Clerkship at a boutique corporate and commercial law firm. She obtained her LLB degree from Witwatersrand and has an Honours and Bachelor of Arts (Psychology and Sociology) degree respectively.
She has recently passed her board exams and looks forward to Admission as an Attorney. She is passionate about dispute resolution which entails focusing on dispute circumvention, risk management, advising clients on the correct and beneficial strategy to resolve disputes. Her intention is to practice and specialize in all forms of dispute resolution including but not limited to, litigation, mediation, arbitration, and negotiation.
She is an avid reader, not only because reading is the main work of a legal professional but mainly because she believes in the power of books to impact and change our lives for the better. She appreciates the way authors are able to express some of our own thoughts, teach us different life lessons and provide a joyful escape from our own realities. Some of her favourite books are, ‘I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai’, ‘The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo’, ‘Maybe you Should talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb’ and ‘A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson’.
She hopes that through her contribution to For Women in Law, she not only instills a genuine love for reading but also share books that are assisting her as she navigates and finds her place in the legal profession and continues to grow as a black woman.
“I hope the joy that reading brings me, will find you and that you may find and read books that bring you Joy. Blessings!”