I’ve been reading Lean In and trying to reserve comment until I finish the whole thing, but realize now that I have a lot more to say about the book than one post could logically cover, so I’m just jumping in and writing before I finish the book. Which I need to finish fast, btw, since I’m hosting book club tomorrow night and this is the book I picked!
One of the overriding themes of Lean In is that women need to be confident. Speak up in meetings. Ask for raises, for promotions, for flexible schedules. In short: be like a man and act more confident than you feel, sell yourself for positions for which you may not actually be qualified because that’s what men do, demand that your voice be heard whether or not you actually believe what it is you’re saying because that makes you look credible and like a leader.
All this advice is well and good coming from someone like Sandberg: an obvious Type A who’s had every advantage in life in terms of being confident in herself and her abilities. Education. Powerful mentors and sponsors (almost all of whom were men, which I found a bit disheartening for some reason) starting from back when she was a child told she could grow up and do anything, through high school when she interned on Capitol Hill and was personally introduced to House Speaker Tip O’Neill, throughout her whole career which basically read as some powerful man helping her, time and time again, as she moved up the career ladder, it’s clear that this is not a woman with self-esteem issues. She knew from an early age that she was smart and that she wanted to be a boss, and she made it happen…and now wants to tell the rest of us non Type-A, non-Harvard educated women around the world that all we have to do to become leaders is act confident until we actually feel confident.
Which is all well and good, except the reality is that suggesting women just be confident or even act confident is something that simply won’t work. Just look at two recent campaigns aimed at women and it’s glaringly apparent that low self-esteem is so rampant among women that feeling ugly and, therefore, unworthy is basically a universal truth so strong that just addressing the subject in an advertising campaign is recognized as a sure-fire way to strike an emotional cord with–and therefore sell to–women.
Take Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign, the tagline of which is “Imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.” You watch the video and, if you’re a woman, at least, are struck by the powerful message that we are actually more beautiful than we perceive ourselves to be, which, in turn, takes on a much larger meaning than just beauty. We may not feel beautiful or powerful or smart, but we need to realize that we are our own worst critics and it’s likely that others see us in a much rosier light, and we should start seeing ourselves in that light too.
Then add to that Avon’s recent “Red Lipstick” campaign. “My customer tells me she’s never worn red lipstick….because she never thought she was pretty enough for red.” Again with the beautiful woman who feels she’s ugly, and needs to be told by her friendly Avon sales rep that she’s actually beautiful enough to wear red lipstick.
There’s a reason why companies like Dove and Avon spend millions on advertising campaigns geared around the universal truth that women think they’re ugly and unworthy: because it’s a message that resonates with so many women. So while Sheryl Sandberg feels that it’s as easy for women as just showcasing their killer smarts and grabbing that promotion by the balls all the way up to the glass ceiling and beyond, clearly that’s not a tactic that’s going to work for most women if the reality is that most of us don’t even feel we’re worthy of wearing red lipstick. What I’d like to know is how do you change THAT, that fundamental feeling that we’re ugly and not worthy and not smart and not good enough? Because until women learn to do that, I don’t see that Leaning In is going to be feasible for the vast majority of women.