XIA: Why I lean in

I had my notepad out, ready to capture wise thoughts and stories. I had even climbed all the way up Science Hill — that’s how excited I was to hear this talk on personal values. I was going to hear a talk from Janet Dalziell, a Yale World Fellow and a senior executive in Greenpeace. What drew me to this event was how strong and down-to-earth Dalziell seemed. She began talking about her identity with an off-handed preface, saying she didn’t particularly identify with the label “woman.” “Mother,” perhaps, but not “woman.”

At the time I didn’t think much about it, but then a thought hit me — would a man ever preface a talk about personal identity and values with, “I don’t particularly identify with being a man?” Probably not. The speaker’s dissociation of the female label is a telling example of how respected and high-achieving women often feel distant from their gender.

Which is reasonable, because success, power and leadership are so frequently perceived as masculine traits. That perception is detrimental, and it affects everyone. Men and women both unconsciously discriminate against women. In a recent study conducted at Yale, faculty reviewed the resumes of applicants for a lab manager position. Half the faculty received a resume from “John,” and the other half received the same resume from “Jennifer.” Faculty on average judged John to be more hireable, more competent and offered him a starting salary 14% higher than the one offered to Jennifer, even though they had identical qualifications. We all correlate success and likeability with men and not with women — and it’s both males and females who perpetuate these misjudgments.

Yale is known for its progressive culture, yet it still lacks female leadership presence in both its administration and its undergraduate organizations. The University has only once had a female president, and Yale College Council has not had a female president since 2008. The gender divide manifests itself not just in the institution at large, but in our daily conversations and encounters with “casual sexism.” One of my friends pointed out that in a female-dominated psychology seminar, more of the males participate. How can we hope to achieve gender equality if everyone, even ardent feminists, unconsciously push women back as they try to succeed? This is what the Lean In campaign attempts to address.

Lean In is a women’s leadership campaign spearheaded by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. The campaign urges women to fight societal pressures to stand back, be nice and lean out of career acceleration. Instead, Sandberg recommends leaning in, which can promote a virtuous circle: By stepping forward, women succeed professionally, and are then in better positions to advocate for structural changes that benefit other women. The campaign is a call to action, intending to bring communities of women (and men!) together to support each other in their will to leadership. At its core, Lean In is an educational campaign. Without awareness, society cannot correct its unconscious discrimination against women.

Personally, what is most salient to me about the campaign is its discussion of women exhibiting the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome is the phenomenon of capable people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments and subsequently feel like frauds. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and tend to be more limited by it. Sandberg explains, “Ask a man to explain his success and he will typically credit his own innate qualities and skills. Ask a woman the same question and she will attribute her success to external factors, insisting she did well because she ‘worked really hard,’ or ‘got lucky,’ or ‘had help from others.’”

This was eye-opening for me. When I am asked about my accomplishments, I consistently explain exactly how circumstances happened to align for each election I’ve won, or for each board position that has been handed to me or for how I got into Yale. Looking back, I never once used the explanations “because I’m qualified” or “because I deserved it.” What is empowering about Sandberg’s message is that she points out that so many strong women, herself included, experience the same self-doubt. Understanding these patterns of internal biases has given me courage to lead strongly in spite of my own insecurities, which I now recognize as self-defeating and illegitimate.

Like Janet Dalziell, I didn’t previously associate strongly with my identity as a woman. But the Lean In campaign is inspiring me to reclaim that identity, and to redefine the qualities associated with my gender — to realize that women are not necessarily less feminine just because they speak up and assert their own qualifications. I lean in because I believe in its promise for our generation of leaders. I lean in because I am qualified and because I deserve it.

Nancy Xia is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at nancy.xia@yale.edu.

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