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Essay on debate over whether women need to be encouraged to 'lean in'

Teaching Students to 'Lean In'
March 13, 2013

"No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table," said Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her widely viewed TED talk, "and no one gets the promotion if they don't think they deserve their success, or they don't even understand their own success." In her new book, Lean In, Sandberg promises to expand on these ideas — and people are taking issue even before it’s hit the bookstores. She’s "tone-deaf to the problems average women face," argues Maureen Dowd. Other commentators have suggested that the skills Sandberg wants women to practice — including self- advocacy and negotiation — are the tools of "elites."

We don’t think so. Self-advocacy and negotiation skills, among others, are essential for developing young women as leaders. At Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, the oldest and the largest all-women’s college in the United States, respectively, 20 percent of students are not "elites" but are the first in their families to attend college – and this reflects a national trend. About 30 percent of the young people attending college (a majority of whom are women) are "first-generation." We realize, based on Annette Lareau’s now often-cited research, that self-advocacy, asking questions of authority figures, and acting as the impetus for change are practices more familiar to individuals growing up in upper-middle-class families — because these skills are often modeled and encouraged. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles published a study in 2009 showing that first-generation college students were less likely to participate during class, e-mail faculty members and attend office hours, or assist faculty with research for credit — yet these skills are associated with success at college and beyond.

It is with these students in mind that we teach the skills Sandberg recommends. When students learn to construct and voice their opinions — offering a new or conflicting view in class, sharing criticism effectively, or approaching a professor confidently — we believe they will become graduates who believe they’re entitled to speak up and ask for a fair share.

Yes, we said entitled. While the "e" word may call to mind college students who expect a decent grade just for attending class, or entry-level millennials who balk at the idea of working their way up, we see another dimension of entitlement: the recognition that you deserve a voice and a place at the table.

Let’s not forget that women make up less than 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and 25 percent of elected officials (even after a big election year for women), and they make 77 cents or less for every dollar a man makes. We are encouraged that all over the country, small movements teach women to feel entitled to push past real but often invisible barriers that keep them from influential positions. The OpEd Project has set a goal of increasing the number of women opinion makers — and that’s starting to happen. The number of women’s voices on the nation’s opinion pages has increased 6 percent in the last six years, because when more women submit their writing, more women’s voices are published. Project 2012 aimed to increase the number of female political leaders by encouraging more women to run — and it’s working. The number of women in public office increased during the last election to 20 women senators, because, when more women run, more are elected. Women need to feel entitled to throw their hats in the ring because when more women compete, more win. It’s that simple.

Sandberg’s advice isn’t just for elite women. It’s for real women, for young women, and especially for first-generation women and women of color.

Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges are both committed to guiding women — who often come from modest backgrounds — to "sit at the table." A Latina student who worked her way from a community college to Smith is now a finalist for a prestigious fellowship; a first-generation college student at Mount Holyoke published an article with her adviser. These pathways start from encouraging students to raise a hand, to apply, to put themselves out there.

Our leadership centers offer training in speaking up in class and speaking up in the media. This year we asked the OpEd Project to talk to our students, and we offered workshops to hone drafts. Last year, we brought an expert to teach a workshop, "Ask For It," to more than 100 students, and we continue to offer workshops on negotiation. Other campuses are expanding their leadership programming. At Texas Tech University, the Women and Leadership program offers female college students opportunities to hone their leadership skills including public speaking and community organizing. At Seattle Central Community College, they offer a range of women’s leadership programs, including one focused on political organizing around women’s rights. From Portland State University to the University of Virginia, women’s leadership programs emphasize confidence through skill-building.

We understand that teaching women from a range of backgrounds to feel entitled to speak up in class won’t change mind-boggling social policies that leave the United States trailing other countries. Showing students why and how to ask for more money in their first jobs won’t change laws that leave working families struggling when a new baby arrives, or when a child is sick.

Not yet.

But when women college students develop the skills that Sandberg argues are most important, they are gaining the capacity to change the world, as decision-makers and opinion leaders. As community members, teachers, parents and friends, we can encourage women in our lives to feel entitled to speak up, to ask for more, to run for office, to shape the media’s message. "Leaning in" is not just a good idea for elite women — it’s a good idea for all women.
 

Bio

Becky Wai-Ling Packard is director of the Weissman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College. Jessica Bacal is director of the Wurtele Center for Work & Life at Smith College.

 

 

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