"What would you do if you weren't afraid?"
As someone who believes strongly that words should match actions, I am struck by a second line that accompanies the one above in Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In:
"Writing this book is what I would do if I weren't afraid," Sheryl writes. And I cheer for her... and then feel emboldened.
Speaking out on an issue that could potentially be met with an unsympathetic eye or, worse, a critical voice, is scary for a lot of us -- myself included.
As a woman who wants to be liked, I stay (publicly) silent on a lot. What I am realizing is that in doing so, I am doing a massive disservice to human beings around me -- with anti-equality ripples all over the world. If I want to help create a better world (which I deeply and desperately do), I must have all actions and words match -- even those that are profoundly scary to show and say. As a C-level "success" in business and a happy wife and mother of two, it appears I have achieved the "good life" (and sometimes, even I would agree!). But it has not come or continued to evolve without my own tales to tell from the trenches of being an American woman coming of age in the 1980s/'90s, facing the challenge of "Having It All." Even as I write this, I feel ashamed, feeling that I should be only thankful, grateful for what I do have and not focus on what I (we, women) still don't have (true and global equality).
In my quest for a good life, I chose medicine (following in my father's footsteps). I wanted to follow a life calling, rather than simply find a job. I care about other people, want to ease their suffering and desire meaning in my life beyond the acquisition of power and material things. But if I am going to be 100% forthright with you and with myself, I will also admit that I knew that a career in medicine would provide me success and security, no matter what, if I successfully jumped all the hoops of that career pathway. I am smart, I do well in school and this was a path I could succeed in, despite the fact that I am XX rather than XY.
Surrounded by people and images in the pursuit of business success, I was afraid. I was afraid of what looked possible only for men ("success") -- and the aggressive ones at that. It was uncertain, distasteful... scary.
Many years later, I look back at my career trajectory in medicine and transition into business in the 2000s. An interesting aspect is that my two most glaring cases of sexually-charged mentorship duplicity have occurred recently, both of which came out of the business world from highly respected C-level executives of billion-dollar corporations.
That never once happened to me as a practicing MD.
But when I think about it more, I remember a few times I was intimidated or marginalized, either with sexual undertones or overt sexual overtures, by professors when I was a medical student. Further, there was a lot of that rampant against female nurses, dieticians and pharma reps. But not so much against the other attending physicians (that I could see).
When I transitioned into parlaying my skills and talents into corporate wellness, I noticed a distinct shift into a world where it seemed expected, de rigueur to say one thing while the intent behind it was something else altogether. What's the agenda, what's the next hoop to jump? It isn't always clear. I'd think it was about "the bottom line" (money), but other power often trumps even that. Sexual harassment or sexual marginalization by a man in power is a form of exerting/obtaining more power, of reducing a woman to only a sexual being, there for another's sexual agenda. What good could she be, otherwise?
This is a mass generalization and to be fair, I have not found this to be universal by any means. The team with me at my own C-level position is a shining example of an organization that supports women by hiring/promoting based on past experience AND potential. They should be lauded, and I do so here. We need more organizations like that! And my husband tells me of zero tolerance policies at his global science-based organization and they do have many female leaders (the CEO of this Fortune 500 Company is, however, XY). Making headway? Yes. But we need to do more for each other and we need to acknowledge it still isn't truly equal -- it won't be until, as Sheryl points out, we have more women in power, advocating for one another as only another woman can.
As I continue my journey, I will continue to reflect on my experiences and relay them unpolished, without apology. Why? Because I am realizing that as I seek to better the world, this may well be one way I can help accomplish that -- for you, for me, for my daughter and my son. For all of us. Please, do the same -- do not be afraid. Because, as Sheryl writes, it's not only that we need to Lean In -- we also need to Speak Out.
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