Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In is perhaps the best book I’ve read all year. It’s certainly the best non-fiction book I’ve read in many years. The primary reason Lean In has impacted me so greatly is simple: Since I work in technology, I work with similar male/female ratios to Sandberg. Her suggestions of how to stop treating myself as second best rang extraordinarily true, and I have already begun implementing many of her ideas.
But one chapter particularly struck me. Chapter 3, “Are you my mentor?” discussed how mentoring relationships are valuable, or even necessary, for anyone hoping to move up within a company. She says that men are far more likely to be chosen as mentees than women, and details some of the reasons why – predominantly, that women wait to be asked for help, where men tend to push forward. Adding to the challenge for women, those who do push forward are often seen as “aggressive” or unlikable, where their male counterparts are viewed positively, as strong, or “taking charge.”
“Women who excel will find mentors who push them to the top,” – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
I have a theory, and Sandberg’s breakdown of male and female stereotypes supports it. Perhaps, since men are often stereotyped as independent and strong, where women are expected to ask for help or hold back, men who seek mentors stand out. A man looking for help from a mentor is certainly more unique than a woman looking for help – perhaps this signifies that a man asking for aid has something special, something different around him. Perhaps equally, this is why women who stand out are the women who are strong and independent, and therefore although they are more noticeable, they are also less likely to accept help from a mentor.
Recognizing the problem brings us halfway there, but creating a solution is also difficult. For more women to succeed in business (assuming there are qualified and interested women – which all studies show there are), how can they stand out from the crowd and yet also accept – or even ask for – a mentor’s help?
How can we bridge these two seeming contradictions?