I’ve never seen my social media feeds so amped for the release of a book as they have been in recent days for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. And the more I read of the debate and discourse surrounding the book, the more frustrated I get. I don’t dispute Sandberg’s factual points that women are underrepresented in leadership roles, particularly in corporate America. I don’t negate that women face obstacles that men would not recognize if they ran into them face-first.
I’m tired of being told how to be successful and what success should look like. And I’m mostly tired of it because it’s other women screaming these messages at me in conference sessions, via social media, in books, in blogs, in networking opportunities.
Ask for that.
Volunteer for this.
Network with this person.
But don’t talk to this person.
Go to this conference.
But don’t wear that.
I won an award last year from a professional organization and instead of congratulatory messages, the messages I most often received were about how I could do more, be better, and be more visible in my field. This award was a launching pad to larger, greater successes. And those messages came from women. Men in my field, including my mentor, congratulated me with a handshake or a hug with no expectation of how I would use this to get closer to where I am going. And maybe it’s because they don’t have to think about that regularly, but I grew to resent the unsolicited ideas and feedback on where I should go next to be successful because no one was asking me where I wanted to go. I stopped being a person and started being an example of how a woman can succeed and, in turn, that somehow turned me into a token of success instead of a person with her own plan and path and definition of success.
We talk regularly in my professional circles about how women need to support each other, how we need to lift each other up. But there’s a faction who confuse lifting with pulling and dragging, who have stopped listening to individuals and made assumptions about where a person wants to be or should be.
I regularly have conversations with one of our entry-level staff members on campus about this, about how success looks different for different people. And as we talk, I know in my heart that she’s going on to do great things no matter her path because she has a clear vision of what success means to her. She knows what it is and what it isn’t. She knows where she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. She takes the help offered to her, but refuses the help that conflicts with her own values. And at 24, she’s a role model for women in ways they won’t recognize right away. I listen to her thoughtfully process what she sees from other women in the field and reconciles it against her own plans, which involve next jobs, her family, her partner, and maybe adopting a pet. She hasn’t leaned in to her career; she’s leaned in to herself.
And isn’t that more important? To understand ourselves, to know our own strengths and plans and goals? To be resilient in the face of unsolicited advice and expectations? To be content with the path we’ve chosen if it’s where our heart is?
Lean In is currently downloading on my tablet. Having not read it yet, I can’t make promises that I won’t be back to share more thoughts and opinions on its promise of new age feminism and how it integrates with student affairs.