Throughout my career as a female chemical engineer working in the chemical industry, I have always found navigating the career landscape challenging; and I often wished I was not the only woman at the table — and wondered whether other women felt the same way.

Sheryl Sandberg’s newly released book “Lean In” really clicked with me in this regard.  While raising the question: “Why do we have too few women leaders?” she pointed out certain behaviors women have that hold ourselves back.  For example, women tend to incorporate family planning in their careers long before they have a family.  They essentially “lean out” with respect to career. Women are less confident to take on greater responsibilities and tend to have more self doubts. Women are also less likely to negotiate salaries and directly ask for opportunities than their male counterparts. Networking is another area men and women approach very differently: men will casually grab a drink with his superior, which due to the current state is usually another man, while women take a more formal approach by setting up a meeting during the workday avoiding the “wrong impression.”  These are only a few of the many differences between men and women she cited throughout the book.

I am passionate about the topic; however, this is not an easy blog to write because Sandberg’s book is definitely more than a little controversial.  Therefore, I feel it is important to make the point that this is not a feminist crusade, not a snobbish look-down on women who have decided to stay at home with their children. Nor is this about women complaining that they have not been given the same opportunities as their male colleagues.

Instead, this is about encouraging women when we hesitate to take on challenging opportunities out of self-doubts, encouraging us to be more direct rather than too subtle when expressing our career needs, and not passing on us for assignments requiring relocation because  we have working husbands.  This is about understanding we might need to dial in for a 6:30 am meeting from home because we split the responsibility of dropping kids off at school with our husbands; and encouraging us to give more consideration when it seems we are making family-related career decisions too early.   And if I may be even more provocative, this is about when you see a male senior and female junior having a drink after work: please don’t put it in an inappropriate context.

This is about understanding a woman’s point of view and how women approach things.

To my female colleagues: form your own “Lean In Circle” with women you trust. Openly discuss the challenges you face while trying to “have it all” and issues we historically have not been comfortable talking about.  Share what happened when you asked for an opportunity and negotiated salary; how pregnancy did not slow you down; how many times you have given your sick children medicine and dropped them off at daycare.  Share your experience when you are the only woman at the table and the only topic of discussion at customer events is sports.  Don’t be concerned about working for women, and take the time to mentor women when they work for you. When you get to the top, become a female role model and use your stronger voice to continue this conversation and help your female colleagues to succeed.

Even though I did not grow up in this country, I know things have greatly improved for women in the workforce; I only need to watch one episode of Mad Men to appreciate all that we have today.

Reference:

Sheryl Sandberg’s Ted Talk “Why do we have too few women leaders” can be found at http://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html

According to data provided by our Human Resource Department, 22% of CE’s employees and 18% of executives are women, which is higher than the average of Fortune 500 companies.