Come on into the Boardroom. Take a Seat at the Table

It’s #CareerTuesday here on throwingclay.org. This week’s post is inspired by a chapter in Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” and the fact that, despite reading this book, I see myself and others prove her right time and time again when it comes to this particular issue. Sheryl opens the chapter on taking a seat at the table with this story:

“A few years ago, I hosted a meeting for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at Facebook. We invited fifteen executives from across Silicon Valley for breakfast and a discussion about the economy. Secretary Geithner arrived with four members of his staff, two senior and two more junior, and we all gathered in our one nice conference room. After the usual milling around, I encouraged the attendees to help themselves to the buffet and take a seat. Our invited guests, mostly men, grabbed plates and food and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over publicly so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats. The four women had every right to be at this meeting, but because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants. I knew I had to say something. So after the meeting, I pulled them aside to talk. I pointed out that they should have sat at the table even without an invitation, but when publicly welcomed, they most certainly should have joined. At first, they seemed surprised, then they agreed. It was a watershed moment for me. A moment when I witnessed how an internal barrier can alter women’s behavior. A moment when I realized that in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within.”

Carolyn Custis James, in her own review of the same chapter of Lean In, gives the following comments and highlights the attendant quotes:

“This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name—the imposter syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible … but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.” (p.29)

She sees a lack of confidence reflected in how men and women talk differently about their successes—men pointing to their “innate qualities and skills,” and women attributing their success “to external factors” such as hard work, luck, and help from others.  (p.29)

But pulling back is not a strategy for success, much less for advancement in the workplace. Taking initiative—”jumping in to do something … your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly is what matters.” (p35)  She goes so far as to advocate faking it until you get the hang of things.

To underscore her own struggle with self-doubt, Sandberg tells how she reacted with embarrassment instead of gratitude to the news that Forbes ranked her fifth on their 2011 World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list.”

” … in order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities. I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities. I still have days when I feel like a fraud. And I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not. But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I have learned to sit at the table.” (p.38)

What did I learn from this?

How many times have you walked into a meeting you are meant to be in and immediately removed yourself to a corner. How many times have you felt apologetic about your achievements? How many have you answered “what do you do” with a self-deprecating watered down version of what you actually do? How many times have sat “out of the way” in a meeting room? How many times have you avoided small talk with other participants before, during and after the meeting? How many times have you left a meeting thinking “I really should have said something about that” because I know the answer. How many times has an opportunity been floating there and you waited for someone to hand it to you directly? Have you ever wondered why? An awareness of the behaviour that has been reinforced in you as lady-like for years plays a powerful part in opening your eyes to the subconscious ways in which you may be holding yourself back. Just that… awareness.

We spend a lot of time talking about getting a seat at the table. The thing is, once you get the seat, you need to actually sit in it. You need to own it. You need to do excellent work externally. You also need to do the internal work to believe that you should be there. That you are an expert at something otherwise you would not have a chair. If you are not aware and you do not do the internal work, you will stall and self-sabotage right there at the table that you fought so hard to get to. You can fake it at first but that has never been a sustainable solution for a marathon and a career is a marathon.

I can’t break down all the complexities of the corporate leadership experience in one post but awareness is the first step. You can’t engage, much less resolve, what you don’t know. This Ted Talk by Sheryl Sandberg is one of the foundational stones of my own awareness so I thought I would share it.

If you are in the mood to read a little more, consider this post on how the Howard/Heidi Study at Harvard Business School demonstrated unconscious gender bias across genders in the workplace.

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