Lean In …to a Movie

The golden girl of the decade – Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Chief Operating Officer –  has just achieved another coup.  Sony Pictures has obtained the rights to turn Sheryl’s best seller self-help book, Lean In, into a movie.  My life, my blog could be a movie too.  (Notice the similarity in our first names:  Sheryl, Sherry.)  Except I think my story might be titled something more like “Leaned On” and billed more as a Lifetime movie.   

I’m not complaining.  I have had a much richer life and more experiences than I ever dreamed were possible growing up as a first generation Czechoslovakian on my mother’s side and second generation German courtesy of Dad.  It’s just that – well ….I wish I had Sheryl’s book and advice 30 years ago. 

Timing is everything.  

Born too soon – and now thirty years into my career –  is it too late to hope that I can achieve even a small modicum of Sheryl’s success?   At 21, I did not know I could be something or someone.  At 21, I was in the workforce as a secretary (before the term “Administrative Assistant took root) and working in an organization where name tags on offices signficantly spoke the LAST name of each worker led by first and middle initials.  In the early 1980s this perpetuated the archaic practice of addressing all the engineers and accountants (who were, in fact, all men) as “Mr. So-and-So.” 

Maybe Sheryl could not find a Ladies Room when visiting a New York office.  But I worked with women who called their bosses “Mr.” and whose careers had been interrupted by mandatory child care leave.  That’s right, in the latter half of the 20th century, it was still common in some American firms to force a woman to resign once she was pregnant.   

These women were my role models. 

Understand – I had parents who gave me a wonderful life and tremendous opportunities – and choices that they never had.  But in all that, there was little either my mom or dad could do to create a vision of Leadership or Management for me – let alone one that would have a female in the lead role. 

Nevertheless, I did have a sort of natural instinct that told me most gender differences were poppycock.  When my mother would hover over my brother’s dinner asking if he wanted mustard with his hot dog – and instructing ME to go get the mustard for him – I would very kindly (risking a slap across the mouth from Mom) state: “He can get it himself.”

Now….try to translate that behavior into the workplace.  When Mr. Smith stopped me to announce that Mr. Jones wanted a cup of coffee in the 1980s, I handed him a quarter for Mr. Jones to go to the coffee machine himself and get said coffee.  My – ahem – “sense of humor” was not well received.

Fast forward to 2014, and I have worked my way up into a legitimate IT Manager position.  (Pats on the back here, if you don’t mind.)    The world has come a long way.  And still has a LONG way to go.

You can agree or disagree with Sheryl Sandberg’s notion of “leaning in.”  You can take apart her words and dice them and mince them into something she likely did not mean.  The important thing is that she said it.

Sheryl said what few people anywhere have been able to say, and that is simply this:  men and women are different. 

This does not mean that a woman cannot hold the same job a man had.  As I often mentally remind myself, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. . . backwards. . . and in high heels.  Thing is, Ginger did not think she had to act like the men or be someone she wasn’t.  And neither do I.

In my life, in my career, I strive to be authentic.  And what I ask of others is that the be authentic with me.  Yes, it hurts sometimes.  And, yes, I have gone into the Ladies’ Room to cry at times.  But my honest co-workers have made me a better team member, a better manager, and a better person. 

So, let’s have the discussion.  And bring on the movie, Sheryl!  The more that is said, the more that the floor is open to discussion of the issues that are holding women back from leadership positions, the more we have to gain as a society, as an economy, as a community. 

I am not the only working female that did not have role models.  I am not the only woman that still struggles against perceptions and constraints of who and what I should be.   But I’m not so sure that all the other women out there – and all the men who could be partnering shoulder to shoulder with women – will read the book.  MAYBE they’ll watch the movie.  MAYBE the movie will keep the conversation, the Tweets, the Vines, the SnapChats going and going like ripples on the water, forever changing the shape of the working world we know. 

It can’t hurt.

House Cleaning Routine

My mother was a disciplined creature.  In the first half of the 20th Century, when my mother landed on American soil, there was no greater platitude to aspire to than Cleanliness is next to Godliness.  We might make snarky remaks about that today.  But the reality is that our new industrial world was fraught with disease and death was an all too well known occurence.  For my mom, that started at the age of three with the death of her siblings from influenza.   My mom was ALWAYS busy.  Mondays and Tuesdays were laundry days, Wednesday was grocery day, Thursday she cleaned the upstairs, Friday she cleaned the downstairs.  I always knew when it was Saturday.  That’s when she sent me outside to wipe down the wrought iron railings on both porches.  30 feet of them.

If you grew up in early industrial America where cement and steel manufacturing thrived, this would all make sense to you.  In our neighborhoods, women routinely went outside every morning and swept the dust off the sidewalks and out of the gutters.  Sounds silly.  But it was really necessary.  Otherwise, all that thick dust got dragged into the house and was ground into the floors and – worse – into the carpets.  And in the age that preceded the modern vacuum cleaner, one had to literally beat the carpets to attempt to expel the dust.

Dirt and dust became caused bugs according to my mother.  She may have been right.  And bugs made you sick.  And sickness meant you couldn’t work.  And in the steel and cement mills, if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid.

We’ve come a long way.  But I never for once forget that the cement and steel mills gave me the life I have today in the 21st century.  And the discipline with which my parents led their daily lives became my own work ethic.  I don’t think I turned out too badly either.