by Lee Desser
On my winding bus ride to work, I often stare out the window and tune into podcasts. This morning I was listening to the TED Radio Hour featuring a session called, “Disruptive Leadership,” in which Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, discusses the lack of women holding leadership roles in companies. Sheryl is well-known for her bestselling book Lean In, which encourages women to step up into senior leadership roles. She discusses the gender bias experienced by women and how girls avoid positions of power in order to avoid being called bossy. The b word.
This brought me back to 2013. At the time I had just finished my master’s in postsecondary administration and was temping at a large, public, research institution. Full disclosure: I was having a really tough time living in one of the most expensive areas of the United States without job security. My goal was to land a full-time position in academic advising or career services. I had been getting called for interviews, but that “permanent” position evaded me. Was it the lack of experience? I had gone straight from college to graduate school. Could it be my age? In meetings with graduate advisers on campus I was the youngest one in the room by at least 10 years. Or maybe—perhaps most disheartening of all—was it me, my personality, my disposition? I wanted feedback. I needed it.
That day eventually came. A director on campus who had been part of a hiring committee for a position for which I had just interviewed was kind and courageous enough to provide me with some honest input. She sat me down in her office and had a few suggestions. Thanks to the rise of long-term e-mail storage and my obsessive cataloging, I wrote her ideas down: “Present an advising example or challenge with a mutually beneficial solution,” she said. “That seems like a no brainer! I can do that,” I thought. “Think deeper about examples and expand.” Will do. Check! Then came the suggestion that haunts me to this day and perhaps speaks to what I considered, at the time, a failure not only in terms of the interview, but of my womanhood: “Present a more welcoming, nurturing side.” Ooh burn.
I remember I cried in her office that day and, as appreciative as I was of the feedback, it hurt really badly. I felt like I had been told all my life that women need to step it up, have to be assertive to get what they want. And then I did that and this happens. For years afterwards, I worked on “lightening up,” “softening” and through facing some challenging times, I think—at least in some ways—it worked.
When I heard Facebook’s Sandberg say that girls don’t want to be called bossy and that they are encouraged to put their hands down, to let boys lead, I remembered this conversation I had with the director. Have I been wasting all this time lightening up when I should have been stepping it up? Sandberg seems to think so.
I realize now that, rather than hearing her feedback as an acknowledgement of my own personal failings as a woman, I should have instead considered alternate opportunities. Why was I so quick to become deeply self-conscious at one suggestion by one well-meaning professional? These mixed messages for women to both assert themselves and also nurture others are confusing and difficult to navigate and yet, happen all of the time. How assertive is too assertive in higher education? What about in student affairs? Is it different?
Lee Desser, Career Advisor, University of California, San Diego