I’m reading Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book Lean In right now and it got me thinking about the stories we all tell about our experiences. We all face circumstances on our journeys that shake our confidence and require us to lean in… that dare us to step up our game, leap outside our comfort zone, and take a stand for ourselves. I remember one very specific time in my career, when I was a young, fresh-faced graduate with a new job in a “man’s world”.
I’ve shared my story below for you to read… when you’re done, I’d love to hear from you – send me an email and tell me about a time your life when you’ve had to lean in to something?
How I Learned to Lean In
When I started my first job, fresh out of college, as a civilian for the Navy Public Works Department, I was only twenty-three and one of the few women in this arena. At work, I had to wear a hard hat and steel-toed boots helping the guys at the Navy utilities shops get their environmental permits and inspections completed. I had to overcome 2 stigmas – being young and being a woman in a predominantly male field. Initially, the guys in the shops eyed me suspiciously, wondering what do I know about their day to day work? One moment was especially memorable, as I look back over what I had to overcome and learn there.
My direct boss was a nice but old-fashioned guy, who seemed to think a woman’s primary role was secretarial. The week I started, he avoided taking me to the shops to train me in the environmental work that I was hired to do. Instead, one morning he looked around desperately as he searched for the best way to start my training and to find something for me to do. “Here”, he said, as he handed me a stack of hand-written notes on his desk, “these need to be typed up and returned to me by tomorrow”. Being young and new to the job, I felt like I couldn’t directly say to him, “No, this was not the job I was hired to do, remember, I am an environmental biologist and I’d like to see the permit database and go to the shops”. Instead of saying anything, I grabbed the notes from him and ran into my office fuming. I sat there for a long while on the verge of tears. I was so angry.
My internal dialog was driving me crazy:
“Barbara, you are a college-educated women, this was not why HR hired you… are you going to play small and not step up to the plate?“
It continued to plague me. So, I stormed back into his office, not happy that I was on the verge of tears, and blurted out, “I am not your secretary and this is not my job. I’d like to be given tasks that are related to my environmental job.” It was a bit defensive and I stumbled on my words but I spoke my mind the best I knew how. I was raised by a military dad – as a child, you didn’t talk back to authority – especially male authority. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, who left her high-paying job in the 60s after marriage because that’s what good girls did. After they divorced, she was left destitute. So, my parents didn’t exactly give me a feminist tool bag. I learned from my home experience to take care of myself but society doesn’t really train women in particular how to ask for what they need at work and in their careers.
This experience of speaking up to my boss taught me that I needed to get in touch with my own needs in a way that worked effectively for me at work. I ended up taking workshops on women’s leadership and communication so that I could speak up for myself in a neutral and confident way and therefore lean-in more effectively. Due to this life experience, it became my life’s mission to train women how to become confident in their communications at work and become effective leaders.
Are you looking for help to play big in life? If so, shoot me an email and let’s talk!