When Sheryl Sandberg’s blockbuster manifesto Lean In first came out, I was burnt out from years of being a single mom in a pigeonhole career, and I was in no mood to hear what she had to say.
My situation was not for a lack of trying. I followed all the career advice I could find…or at least as much of it as I could understand. I let my boss know I was looking to grow my career and earning power, and would be thrilled to make any move that put me on a growth career path. I accepted the challenge of covering maternity leave for one of my colleagues, proving my potential over a grueling six months. After this trial by fire, my boss gave me a great review and wrote a promotion into my official Career Action Plan. When that very job became available three months later, it was offered to an outside candidate. I never got an interview, and another opportunity never came up while I was with the company.
First, Acknowledge the Gap…
This experience – and others like it – made it very hard for me to sit through panels of senior executive women lecturing at “women’s empowerment events” sponsored by “women’s employee interest groups”. These executives spoke of work/life balance while wearing Christian Louboutin shoes that cost more than my annual childcare budget. They told mom-guilt stories about how hard it was to find just the right nanny, and explained the agonies of allocating their hours while relying upon spouses and hired help to take care of their households and kids. I struggled to juggle everything alone on an inadequate fraction of the salary. They spoke of Hillary Clinton and her famous chocolate chip cookies. During one particularly lean period, my sons were grateful to have anything other than ramen and oatmeal to eat.
When I had run out of sick time and vacation benefits for the year, I left my sick two-year-old in the care total strangers on the days when he felt the worst, because I couldn’t afford to lose a full day’s pay and his regular daycare wouldn’t take him. When my kindergartner begged me not to drop him off anymore at the local YMCA – the only before-school care I could afford – I told him he’d get used to it. Then one day I came in late, and instead of the quiet, cozy, alphabet-carpeted room where I usually dropped him off, we were directed to a massive, barely-supervised gymnasium teeming with children of every age from kindergarten through fifth grade. My young son just curled up in a ball on a bench as I turned away. I cried all the way to work that day.
When the COO of Facebook published a book called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, it was just more of the same old red-soled execu-speak: it was not written for the likes of me.
…Then, Fill It
Since those days, I have become a big Sheryl Sandberg fan. Her PSA on the importance of mentorship and sponsorship[i] speaks to some of my most dearly-held values. I even run a website that is dedicated to promoting these values, and I’m “leaning in” hard. Most importantly, though, I want to echo Sheryl’s message from that PSA: it is never too early in your career to start mentoring others.
Hearing from women like Sheryl Sandberg is amazing, and can give us something to shoot for, but even with equal representation at the c-suite level, the vast majority of women will never get there simply because those roles are themselves scarce. There are far more women out there who are like me and you, and they need to hear from women like themselves, too. We need to be available for each other: to share our struggles and, through our example, to provide hope of rising above them.
You may think you don’t have much to offer, but I assure you that you do! You may have no idea what that pleasant colleague down the hall from you is going through today, but it might just be the same struggle you yourself conquered a few years back. You may have no idea how or where or when your story could change someone’s life, but I assure you that someday it will.
Please don’t keep your story to yourself. Get the stories flowing and the healing going.
Let’s make this go viral.
Sandberg, Sheryl, “Lean In Together: Mentorship Matters” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9FIKLhx4hc
About This Series
“Be the Mentor” is a series in which I explore the joys and benefits of stepping up to be a mentor, and offer my insights on how to do it well. “Where Do Mentors Come From?” is the first article in th
Be the Mentor is published on the first Wednesday of every month at www.mentorsandmasterminds.com.