The book you’ve just opened is unique and inspiring. Sheryl Sandberg with her life story is my role model, and not only mine. I am convinced that Lean In will succeed in sparking the debate on prejudices and stereotypes relating to womens’ success – an issue relevant to any woman no matter what her life ambition might be.
Every speech, debate or conversation concerning women and their careers reminds me over and over again of how essential it is to share specific experience. Only then will you realize that what you’re coping with is nothing unusual or insolvable.
The issue of employed women is a sensitive one, as it reveals wide-spread gender prejudices still prevalent in the labor market. Deep-rooted social conventions make it hard for women to seek their own path and be able to stand up for themselves. My own “two-career” household could never be functional if my husband or myself had a mental block in holding certain concepts of a “good mom” or a “normal family”. To a large extent, the business world is still formed based on male perspectives whereas people committed to family life have yet to gain universal acceptance. Step by step, existing perceptions need to be changed, and the workplace needs to be made open to a diversity of life philosophies and needs. This will bring more satisfaction to all parties involved.
When getting back to ING as Finance Director after my second maternity leave, I already had a clear idea of how I wished to work. I knew that I wanted to work from home one day a week, and the rest of the week in office I was willing to start early so that I could leave earlier and spend time with my daughters. I declared those rules right on my first day back. All colleagues, male and female, nodded their consent, and male colleagues went out of their way to show compassion. When I actually did it, though, walking across the open space toward the door, I could see their puzzled looks. I felt enormous pressure on me. Naturally you want to come across as someone who works hard, is up to her tasks, and is doing a good job. In the end my colleagues got used to it. Thanks to this breakthrough, many mothers and fathers today can similarly adjust their working hours in order to spend time with their kids.
Once you decide to be a successful woman you should anticipate that you will not fit in conventional social patterns and you will always somewhat stand out. I, too, had to put up with all kinds of prejudice, even in my close environment. You know what I mean, people accusing me of being an uncaring mother whose kids are raised by a nanny, not even able to do the laundry for my husband. This is exactly the moment when many women decide to give in to expectations forced upon them by their environment. They don’t want to feel like outcasts, and they wonder if their career is worth the trouble. We need to be constantly boosting our courage to confront these prejudices, follow out inner feelings, and make our own choices in life.
Lean In puts a lot of emphasis upon mentoring. Mentoring had enormous impact on me in the past and still has. It is a never ending life process. Life-long education, if you like. At no point in life can you say that you are a fully developed person. I did have a mentor – a woman – and still have her, and in turn do mentoring myself. It always helps to have someone to add something extra to your personality.
I would not have got to my latest position without the support of my mentor, back then director of ING Pojistovna, Alexis George from Australia, who brought me back to ING after my maternity leave to succeed her – determined to get me prepared for the highest of positions in a company. The interview for the position of general manager was extremely tough, I went from long list to shortlist and my current boss was still not sure whether I was the right one for the job. There was no „click“ at first sight. He expected the candidate to behave like he would himself. Instead, he saw a woman in front of him whose conduct and thinking was entirely different, and it took several encounters for him to recognize my qualities and realize the advantages that a woman in top management could bring about. Today he laughs at how stereotypical his thinking was back then. We, as women, fall into the trap of believing that our counterparts will on their own recognize how good we are. We believe that our good performance and results speak for themselves. Consequently we do not know how to ask for a job and instead we keep waiting for someone to come up with an offer. That leads nowhere, though. My case was no different. And then, as soon as I bluntly asked for the job, I got it right off. Later on, my current boss and I discussed these events a lot. For him it was a groundbreaking eye-opener – a lesson in diversity. It showed him that you cannot measure everyone by the same yardstick – not only men versus women but also different nationalities and cultures. Each mentality is specific and we need to eradicate prejudice and be open minded in searching for best talents. Nowadays I am trying to apply this notion to company management as well as to the process of recruiting new employees whereby I instruct my staff to consciously process their prejudices and not let themselves be misled by them. I have been stressing that it takes some strength to stand out and be unique. Therefore it is vital for women to retain their womanhood, their feminine self. It will contribute to their success, and more than that, it will diversify the workplace and social environment.
Social status of women is such that it is tougher for them to “make it” in the masculine world. I have myself been through numerous situations where I lacked the courage to speak up and be assertive. Oftentimes in meetings I chose to remain silent, fearing that what I was about to say would be considered stupid – and guess what, a colleague of mine said the same thing and walked off as a superstar, whereas I could not believe how dumb I was to have shut up when I got exactly the same idea half an hour earlier. We must try and remove such roadblocks inside of us, with the help of a mentor – whether a man or a woman – but not just inside of us but most importantly within the society – in education, schools, workplace, and entire communication. It’s a long distance run, but not impossible. As Sheryl says, all it takes (sometimes) is to start discussing these issues openly. Then you’ve made your first step.
As a society we need all the brainpower and experience that’s out there – we cannot afford to leave any of them unnoticed. Therefore we must get better sense of diverse needs, tolerate diverse approaches, and get rid of our mental stereotypes. We should be able to detect hidden prejudices that make girls shy, submissive and overly cautious right from their early age, thus condemning them to subordination and unwillingness to take charge of their own lives, set their own goals, and pursue them.
Sheryl’s observations and advice strongly remind me of my own experience. She starts her book by praising her parents for bringing her up in the faith that only sky is your limit. My parents have always guided me to realize that a happy life means, more than anything else, to be able to justify my standpoints to myself, and act accordingly.
Yet another acknowledgment goes to Sheryl’s husband Dave for making it all possible for her. Regardless of any woman’s capabilities and fighting spirit, with no support from her partner she stands no chance of succeeding in the long run. A woman needs a partner who rejoices in her success, is proud of her, and understands that her children are also his. Failing that, she is caught in a crossfire which will kill either her career or her relationship.
Whenever asked what my own roadmap has been, I must say I don’t actually know. I’ve learnt this much, though: when you do too much planning plus follow a single track, you miss a whole lot of opportunities that do not fit in your plan. You are blind to them. The key is to be open minded, see what is going on, identify opportunities, take them into account, and give them due consideration. I have always dreamed of being happy in the sense of having an interesting job in which I can make a difference in influencing good things and making decisions, as well as having a big happy family and time for my hobbies. I trust that if we manage to get rid of the roadblocks inside of us whilst working on a change towards higher diversity, we will all of us be better off, not only women but the society as whole.
I am greatly honored to have the opportunity to spice this book up with a bit of my own experience. I believe that LEAN IN will be of enormous benefit to many readers since it is reader-friendly in style, inspiring, and raises a fundamental issue that concerns us all. It tells stories that open up a space for discussion. It demonstrates to women that they have the power to get things moving. There is never enough of books like this. I will be happy if the book becomes an eye-opener for all of us and encourage us to take the first step.