5 Ways Women Can “Lean In” to Their Careers

February 6, 2015

On Jan. 30 I had the opportunity to hear from a panel of local business leaders. Those leaders just so happened to be women. The panelists varied in age and worked in a variety of different industries, but they shared one common thread—they built exceptional careers without sacrificing their commitment to their families. In short, they managed to “have it all!”

The panel discussion, hosted by United Way for Greater Austin, centered around Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”

The “Lean In” panel was comprised of Gay Gaddis (founder and CEO of T3), Lauren Hammonds (account executive at InReach), Laura Hernandez (executive director of multicultural marketing at AT&T), Leah Meunier, Ph.D. (director of Early Childhood Business Alliance and Major Gifts Program at United Way for Greater Austin) and Leslie Wingo (president and CEO of Sanders/Wingo)—and it was moderated by ECPR president and CEO, Elizabeth Christian, with remarks from Denise Bradley (vice president of communications and community affairs at St. David’s HealthCare).

While these offered different perspectives on “leaning in,” the discussion focused on five key principles highlighted in Sandberg’s book:

1. “[We] hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” Christian opened the discussion by asking attendees if they’d ever “pulled back” for any reason—whether it be family, questions about their qualifications and readiness for a position/project, or some other reason. Nearly every woman raised her hand. The lesson here is simple: You can’t play the game if you’re going to take yourself out of it, so “lean in.”

 2. “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.” This statement resonated with all of the women. Hernandez, whose husband was in attendance supporting her, and Meunier credited their husbands with being true partners and “leaning in” for the good of their families by helping out at home and in the workplace. Their advice—if your significant other isn’t as excited about your career as you are, you may want to rethink the relationship.

3. “An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements.” Confidence is key. If you don’t think you can do the job, no one else will either. In her book, Sandberg goes on to say women often downplay their skills and achievements in order to be liked, and “put [themselves] down before others can.” Meunier remembered a time when wasn’t sure she could finish graduate school with a newborn, but her family reminded her that she could. And she did. 

4. “We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.” Hammonds shared her story of a time when she “pulled back” to prepare for her children—who hadn’t even been born. Now, a happy mother of two, she regrets not “leaning in” for her family.

5. “Every job will demand some sacrifice. The key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice.” This point is key. The panelists agree that there are times when your work will need you more than your family, and there are times when your family will need you more than your work. Building a support system that can accommodate these demands will help you build a more satisfying personal and professional life.

In the words of Sandberg, “…please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”

-Erin Ochoa
Vice President, Elizabeth Christian Public Relations