Monday, June 23, 2014

Lean In

Many of you have likely already heard of Lean In, the #1 National Best Seller by Sheryl Sandberg. For those that have, maybe this post will serve as a reminder to keep an important conversation going. For those that haven't, Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and she recently published a book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She writes about the challenges women face in the workforce, and she strongly encourages women who strive to progress in their careers to not give up. I think this book is part of a larger movement, and that this movement is gaining momentum. The movement I speak of is women and men stepping up and speaking up so that women will someday (hopefully in the not too distant future) have the same encouragement, opportunities, and support as men to reach their full potential in the work world.

While this book is important for women and men in almost any industry, I find that its messages ring especially true in an engineering-type industry such as water. Currently, women earn more than 50% of undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States. Despite this, the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely changed over the last decade. Women only hold about 14% of executive officer positions, 17% of board seats, and constitute only 18% of our elected congressional officials. In Sheryl Sandberg's words, "men still run the world….when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, women's voices are not heard equally".

This is the reality. I work for an international company with thousands of employees. Yes, there are many women in the company, but there are not many women at the top. In fact, a graph of the total number of employees in the company and the total number of male employees in the company, plotted against career level, follow nearly the exact same trend. It looks roughly like a bell curve. However, a graph of the number of female employees in the company, plotted against career level, follows a very different trend. It begins with a similar shape (although considerably less in number) through low to almost mid-level, and then it takes a sharp dive down to nearly zero. This is not unique to a particular company; this is occurring in companies of many disciplines and sizes. As a woman who aims to advance in her career, this is alarming and makes me ask the questions "why is this so?" and "what can we do about it?" Of course the answers to these questions are complicated and often controversial. I do think, however, that one of the most important things we can do to address the inequality is to look it square in the face and talk about it openly. I'm very appreciative that the company I work for is willing to look at the data and engage in conversations about how things can improve. They even purchased the book Lean In for those that were interested.

Despite the fact that women obtain more than 50% of undergraduate and graduate degrees, women and men are not equally seeking degrees in certain fields. Some of these fields are ones that are related to working in water, such as engineering. I believe that a common misconception is that the low percentage of women in higher-level positions in our industry is related to there being fewer women studying these fields in school. However, the graph speaks to something else. Sure, the total number of female employees is far less than the male employees, but it is the difference in the trends of the three curves that is the most concerning. The lack of advancement of women beyond mid-level career positions highlights that women are literally not in the game beyond this point. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes not only the challenges that women face in trying to advance in their careers, but also what we as individuals can do and how we can think differently in order to work toward gender equality. A while ago I was lent a women-specific career-oriented book by a friend, something about how a woman can get a corner office. I never made it past the "you have to sit in a certain position in your chair" section. In my opinion, this kind of thinking (women must train themselves to be exactly a certain way) only creates more barriers for women. Maybe some of what this book stated is true, but I just couldn't stomach it. Rather, I think Lean In speaks to what is as the heart of the problem: a rampant lack of self-confidence, inequality in the home, gender biases, the need for advocates, the need to speak up about gender inequality, among others.

If you haven't read the book already, you can hear Sheryl Sandberg's excellent TEDTalk by clicking on the following link:
The talk takes less than 15 minutes to watch and has been viewed more than 4.3 million times. I also recommend a recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Confidence Gap". It can be found by clicking on the following link:

Lastly, I hope that we women can be advocates for each other. Encourage, praise, and promote each other because there is room for us at the top.

- A Utah Women of Water Member

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