The Equality Dilemma, or: How Far Will Leaning In Really Get You?

equality_intro

Disclaimer: I have yet to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ – my current thoughts are based on an brief overview I received during a workshop with the Berlin Geekettes and an impression I’ve formed through some of the commentaries on the book in the press and my direct circle of friends. I will try and post an update on this when I’ve actually read the book (and possibly pour out a whole bucket of ashes over my head, shouting out ‘Mea culpa! Mea culpa!’ when I do).

I recently joined a group of 60-or-so women for the first of two Berlin Geekettes workshops on Sheryl Sandberg’s book. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but started feeling extremely uncomfortable only about ten minutes into the first session. Why? I’ll get to that in a moment.

Now, being a fervent supporter of the Berlin Geekettes and a mentor in both rounds of their great mentorship programme, I don’t think that anyone would claim I do not fully support the general notion of equality in tech and entrepreneurship. But the whole atmosphere on this particular occasion made me extremely annoyed. Not only that, it actually made me angry.

During an interval I approached Jess to let her know that I was feeling out of place and was intending to leave – however she convinced me to stay and share my views. In the ensuing discussion, I must say that I was certainly extremely relieved to find that I wasn’t the only person in the room feeling this way (kudos to Johanna Brewer, foundress of frestyl – I so agree).

Now, what was it that pissed me off so much? I was deeply shocked to find myself in a room full of grown-up women cursing their fate, convinced that they were making a difference by whining to each other. ‘Yes, I’ve been mistreated by men in the workplace too!’ Seriously: yay to solidarity and all that – but how is that useful?

I should probably mention that I work in a predominantly – until very recently even exclusively – male team. This is the case because as an entrepreneur, I hire for skill and attitude, not for gender. I do not care if a candidate is male or female; I care if they are good at what I am paying them to do. The men on my team don’t see me as ‘the woman on the team’. That’s because I am not.

I am not ‘the woman on the team’, I am their boss.

I know how it feels if you want to be liked by people – one of the oft-cited female ‘issues’ in management. However it is certainly not helpful if you face the typical challenges of an entrepreneur. And ridding yourself of it brings along a whole new set of challenges. You have to accept that you will never again be the ‘cute’ girl, and that the Prince Charmings of this world will most likely end up expecting you to save them. But the upside is that you will never have to submit to someone else’s image of you again. You will be the person shaping your world, and other people’s opinions – be they men or women – will suddenly matter a lot less.

Women need to stop looking at gender bias as an excuse for not realising their dreams. I did not ask for anyone’s permission to start my own companies. I’ve had wonderful people around me supporting me all the way, but it is up to me to choose my challenges.

Have I experienced gender bias? Of course I have. I do not claim that there is no bias. But shifting in our seats is not going to get us anywhere. As long as leaning in – our cute butts still firmly planted on a comfortable cushion – feels like a major achievement, we still have a long way to go. If we really want to achieve change, we shouldn’t stop at leaning in, we have to get up and step into the ring instead.

Having said that, I still heavily doubt the point in crying out for 50% of countries and companies being run by women. 50/50 is no more than a number. It might be parity, but it is certainly not equality. We will reach equality when those numbers do not matter any more. It’s up to us to create the foundation for true equality – which is why I believe in initiatives like the Geekettes mentorship programme. Children and young adults must realise that they have equal opportunities to grow, regardless of their gender.

 

As I said, I have yet to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and it may be that I will be proven wrong in my current perception of it. I am very much looking forward to it.