A Call to (Women) Graduates

Leaving academia to join the workforce is one of the hardest transitions in life. With her widely appraised book Lean In, current Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg draws on both her experience and gender research to raise awareness about challenges women encounter in their career and how to tackle these. The book is not limited to women, however. And while most of the research Sandberg relies on compare women to men, minority groups can recognise themselves in these findings too.

I read Lean In as I started my career. Here are the lessons I retained.


1. Recognise your fears

Fear – per definition – holds us back. More often than men, women are afraid and erect internal barriers. This becomes apparent in small things and events – such as raising hands, elevating your voice or being assertive in an email. When accumulated, these behaviours hinder bigger aspirations. Thus recognising your fears is the first step towards addressing them and becoming more comfortable with who you are.


2. Tear down your assumptions

A root cause for fear turns out to be our own assumptions of what people expect from us. Always’ #LikeAGirl advertising campaign, although potentially tricked, proves a point. It asks men, women, boys and girls to do things “like a girl”. Participants respond by running slowly and throwing weakly – underperforming basically. The campaign builds on what social scientists have called the stereotype threat, which is the finding that people are more likely to perform according to a stereotype when they find out about it.

The stereotype threat could explain why men earn more than women. This is, simply put, because women expect to earn less. It could also explain why there are fewer women leaders. Again because fewer of us picture leadership positions held by women. The same goes for scientists and many other STEM professions.

By tearing down assumptions, you wipe the slate clean and allow to believe in yourself again.


Dina Goldstein, Fallen Princesses: Snow White


3. Build up your confidence

Self-confidence plays a key role in getting over personal fears and external stereotypes.

A study at Hewlett Packard showed that women only apply to jobs if they meet all the requirements, whereas men apply if they meet 60% of them. While some question whether this result is solely attributable to women lacking self-confidence more than men, the point is that you should not be the one saying NO to yourself. Rather, you should give things a try and “fake it till you make it” or as Amy Cuddy puts it: fake it till you become it.


4. Own your success

One way to build your self-confidence is to acknowledge your hard work and contribution to success, even the smallest ones.

Yet many people feel like a fraud when receiving public praise or exposure for their accomplishments, as if they did not deserve it. Often dubbed the Impostor Syndrome, self-doubt is more prevalent in high-achieving women than in men. A reason for this may be the assumptions we talked about above or the fear of not being liked, which as revealed by the Heidi vs Howard case may be well-founded. Indeed, the experiment shows that success and likeability are negatively correlated for women, while they are not for men.

By owning your success, you refuse to downplay your achievements as a form of self-defence. You acknowledge yourself and respect your work, regardless of what people may think. On the long-term it pays off.


Courtney Privett, Nevertherless she persisted.


5. Know your self-worth… and ensure others know your value too

While owning your success will build up both your confidence and self-esteem, the people around you should also recognise your value – especially work colleagues.

A common mistake is to believe that by doing a good job eventually someone will notice and reward you. In other words, that someone will notice and put a Tiara on your head. But until society reaches this perfect state of meritocracy, you should learn to advocate for yourself.

A key part of self-advocacy at work is negotiating for increased responsibilities, salary raises and promotions. Here again, women often need to battle against stereotypes. Because they are perceived to be more communal than men, women advocating for themselves is seen as selfish behaviour. Professor Hannah Riley Bowles recommends working around these biases by behaving in line with both stereotypes and your own interests. For instance, by substituting the “we” for “I” and by extensively relying on facts.


6. Keep tight and don’t stop reflecting on where you are

The study-work gap is a big one and you will have doubts all along your career – and life! Sheryl Sandberg recommends having two goals: a long-term dream and an eighteen-month plan. When the short-term career seems wrong, the long-term vision gets you going.

Today’s world is full of opportunities to make your dreams and priorities work together. Careers are no longer up and linear. Instead, there are many ways to get to the top and reinvent oneself.

While work often comes at a cost – such as the usual suspects of stress and over-hours – the focus should eventually be on the opportunities for learning and growing. As Eric Schmidt once said to Sandberg, the only criterion when picking a job is fast growth:

“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat.
You just get on”

Eric Schmidt

Whether you’re willing to trade growth for stability is your choice. Ultimately, everyone has different career goals and goes through life at a different pace.


Kani Alavi, Muriel Raoux - Untitled Berlin East Side Gallery
Kani Alavi, Muriel Raoux – Untitled (East Side Gallery, Berlin)


Talking about gender equality in the workplace is inevitably associated to themes like women empowerment, equal opportunities and diversity. Just like Emma Watson with her He for She initiative, with Lean In Sandberg is calling for men to work together with women to re-shape how society thinks and interacts both at the workplace and in the household. As illustrated by the following quote, Sandberg doesn’t just defend gender equality, she advocates for a freer society where men and women are not tied to a role:

“A truly equal world would be one where
women ran half our countries and companies,
and men ran half our homes”

Sheryl Sandberg


Title: Lean in for graduates
Subtitle: Because the world needs you to change it
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Published: 2014

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