Happy Birthday Tilly!

Lean In

What would you do?

The last issue of The New Yorker had an interesting profile of Sheryl Sandberg, one of the few female executives in Silicon Valley (formerly with Google, currently with Facebook). Although the trials and tribulations of women in corporate culture may seem far removed from a creative life in a small Dartmoor village, they are not perhaps as far removed as one might think -- for all writers and artists are small business owners, the business being Creativity, Inc., and for me (as for many others, I suspect) the business aspects of the job (sales, negotiations, contracts, book-keeping, business correspondence, etc.) take as much time and focus as actually writing, editing, and painting. Thus the business-woman side of me is always interested in other women's experiences in maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

Sandberg talks about the need for women to "sit at the table" (in other words, to show up, be present, ask for what you want), and then to "lean in" and say yes when opportunities arise (rather than leaning cautiously, politely, or fearfully back). She also talks about the need (if one is partnered or raising children) for equality in the home. "Make sure your partner is a real partner,” she says -- pointing out that, statistically, in study after study, working women married to working men still do two-thirds of the housework and three-fourths of the child care.

This part of the article particularly caught my attention:

"In May, Sandberg was most concerned with the futures of the graduating class at Barnard College. She had agreed to be the commencement speaker, following Hillary Clinton in 2009, and Meryl Streep in 2010. The seniors who made up this audience for her post-feminist message were very different from the professional women who heard her TED speech. 'This probably meant more to me than any speech I’ve ever given, because it’s the beginning of their lives,' Sandberg told me on graduation day. For four years, these women were cosseted at Barnard. 'Now they are going to start making choices. What I want to do is tell them to lean in.' She would have to do so with a voice turned husky by laryngitis. Owing to rain, the ceremony was moved from the grass at Grant’s Tomb, perched above the Hudson River, to a cramped gymnasium at Columbia.

As 'Pomp and Circumstance' played, the seniors, in their powder-blue gowns and square caps, took seats in rows of folding chairs facing an elevated platform where Sandberg; Debora Spar, the president of Barnard; and other luminaries sat. Sandberg smiled and cheered when Lara Avsar, the president of the Student Government Association, said that what defines Barnard is that 'as Barnard women, we will never quit,' and then described how Barnard had changed her from a girl from Alabama who once imagined she’d now be hunting for a husband and impatient to have his children to a woman who doesn’t 'have to apologize for speaking my mind.'

After hugging Spar, Sandberg approached the lectern. A colorful crimson sash was wrapped around the neck of her dark gown. Her speech, delivered without notes but with the assistance of a professional coach who worked with Sandberg on honing her delivery, made familiar points about inadequate female representation in leadership positions, about the importance of a life partner to share the responsibilities of the home, about 'leaning in' and 'do not leave before you leave.' Remember this, she said, 'You are awesome.'

She described a poster on the wall at Facebook: 'What would you do if you weren’t afraid?' She said that it echoed something the writer Anna Quindlen once said, which was that 'she majored in unafraid' at Barnard. Sandberg went on, 'Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold. I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try. You’re going to walk off this stage today and you’re going to start your adult life. Start out by aiming high. . . . Go home tonight and ask yourselves, What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it!'"

I love that question: What would you do if you weren't afraid? I've pinned it up on my bulletin board and have been pondering it for the last few days....

And now I ask the same question of you, women and men alike: What would you do?