Friday, April 12

Leaning In

Sheryl Sandberg, the well-renowned and inspiring woman who just so happens to be the Chief Operating Officer of a little company called Facebook, wrote a book and founded a non-profit around her concept of “leaning in.” The idea is that despite the fact that women face systematic and institutional blocks when climbing the corporate ladder, women can take control of their fates by leaning in—by being more assertive and self-confident. 

Lean In is both the title of Sandberg's book and the name of her nonprofit
This concept of “leaning in” has recently been widely discussed and critiqued in the media. One common criticism is that it is unfair to tell women it is their responsibility to overcome structural inequalities and obstacles. That we should focus on fixing the system instead of essentially telling women just to do it themselves. While I certainly see this side of the argument—I definitely do believe that we need to work to address these systematic issues that keep women down in business, politics and other sectors of society—I also think there is something empowering in telling women not to wait for that to happen.

I went on a retreat this past weekend to train to be a Generation Know Ambassador with U by Kotex and Girls for a Change. The mission of the U by Kotex campaign is to empower girls with complete and accurate information about their bodies and their periods and to eliminate the shame surrounding them. As a Generation Know Ambassador, I will be designing a project (or two, or three...) to break the silence about periods and vaginas, to bust the harmful myths associated with them and to spread the word about girls' health and knowledge of their bodies.

The retreat was absolutely wonderful. There were approximately 28 girls from the US and Canada ranging in age from 15 to 23. All of these girls were clearly passionate, intelligent and ambitious. Although we only had a weekend together, our group leaders led several engaging activities to help us get to know and connect with one another. One of the first small activities we did made a particular impression on me. While we were all sitting in one large circle, one of our group leaders told us to “lean in.” She meant this literally: she wanted us to lean our bodies forward, lingering in this position for a few moments. She had us note the sense of vulnerability we felt in that moment: no longer completely balanced, moving closer into a space of people with whom we are mostly unfamiliar. Then she wanted us to think about times when we feel similar vulnerabilities in our lives, when we venture out farther than we are generally used to, when we take risks and are uncertain about what the outcomes might be. She then described this concept of “leaning in” as making yourself vulnerable, yet therefore more able to learn new things, explore new ideas and even meet new, wonderful people.

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The first thing I thought of as she was explaining this concept was, unsurprisingly perhaps, Sheryl Sandberg's concept of leaning in. I thought about how their conceptions of this idea were different: Sandberg wants women to be more assertive and confident, and my group leader wanted us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and step out of our comfort zones. When I thought about it more, however, I realized these ideas were really quite similar. The idea behind “leaning in” is about taking risks, putting yourself out there, believing in yourself enough to allow for some chance of failure and knowing that failure will not define you. These behaviors are generally discouraged in women, who above all are expected to be “likable.” Not ambitious, nor assertive, nor risk-takers, but rather nice and inoffensive. And this is an idea I reject, as a woman, as a feminist, and now, thanks to this amazing opportunity from U by Kotex and Girls for a Change, as a Generation Know Ambassador.

As an ambassador, I will be working to empower girls with information about and respect for their bodies and the amazing things that they are capable of. And I believe that the more we are confident about, comfortable with and proud of our bodies, the farther we, as women, will be able to lean in.