Contributed by EJ Thompson (New York City)
This past May, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, stood in front of me and told me to “lean in.” To jump in, make a change, think big, to “pick a field…and ride it all the way to the top.” It was Barnard College’s graduation ceremony, and all around me were 600 women who, just like me, had completed their education. We had, over the past four years been trained to believe in ourselves as women, as leaders, as intellectuals, as scientists, as writers, as human beings who could make a difference. And Sandberg stood in front of us and told us that yes, there were still inequalities in the work place, but we were poised to make changes.
Her speech was replayed across the country – it was a main photo of the New York Times, it was mentioned in the Huffington Post, Forbes said that she “crushed it.” It was described as a speech for the ages, the one that would be remembered, the most influential one of the graduation speeches that year. It was the speech that sent Barnard College’s class of 2011 off into the great world, and we were ready for it.
Into the Workforce
And so, I graduated and got a job, and I absolutely love it. I am surrounded by smart, powerful women who are at the top of my field. My work life moves at a fast pace. It is demanding, at times stressful, but at the same time thrilling and inspiring. I feel that I have found myself to be “leaning in” quite a bit, always wanting to do more, get involved, learn the process, and this was all just in the first week.
But then, as the glow of graduation wore off, I was suddenly found myself uncomfortably far from college. There, I experienced a sense of community at that was so strong and nurturing; I didn’t realize until I had left that I had actually been in a Barnard Bubble. There was nothing that I couldn’t do. No doors were closed to anyone. But while my ability to succeed was insured, navigating a world outside college was not.
While Barnard prepared me to use my liberal arts education, to succeed in my chosen field, what it didn’t prepare me for was a world where not all women feel the same pride, joy, and confidence that comes from being a woman. It all started one day when I went out to grab lunch with some female coworkers. I started talking about how much it bothered me that one of the mail delivery men (I later found out he is not entirely “there,” but I did not know this at the time) had told me that I was “too weak” to lift a box, and that “women were too weak to do anything.”
I was irate. I was going on about how I can lift a thirty-pound box and if I had wanted help, I would have asked for it (although I’m certainly not above asking for help when I need it). I felt I shouldn’t have to deal with that type of treatment in 2011. And then, after spending about a block defending women’s strengths, one of my coworkers said “Oh my gosh stop. You sound like such a feminist.”
I had never thought of that as an insult before. Yes, I do sound like a feminist. I am one. I am a modern day feminist, who has become confident in my “feminism.” I may not be burning my bra, but I want equality for women in the work place. I plan on having a long and successful career and also having a family, when I choose to. I wear pants. I bring home the bacon.
But clearly that was not something that the women around me wanted, and that was strange for me. We were equally educated, equally ambitious, equally confident. But where was the sisterhood? Having just spent the last four years in an institution that is all about the bond that exists among women, the shared strengths, the successes, failures, struggles and triumphs of our sex, I was shocked to enter the real world and find that women of my generation can still have dismissive reactions to feminism.
To this day, I have been called a “feminist” in a derisive, dismissive way by other women at least three times. It is not a frequent occurrence, but it shouldn’t occur at all.
Sandberg was right. There is more progress to be made, the fight is still ongoing, but no one told me that this fight had multiple fronts; in fact, it was coming from other women. At school, we were not sequestered into one definition of “woman” but, instead, taught that being a woman could encompass many things: strong, graceful, smart, funny. You could play sports, or dance, or both. Be a science major, an English major, or both. You could move a thirty-pound box whenever you wanted to, and no one batted an eye.
My four months in the ‘real world’ have made me trip more than a few times. But I was, and, despite the bumps, still ready to “lean in” and do what I was educated to do. But what I have now realized, is that, unlike the 600 women who were inspired at Sandberg’s speech, not all women in the world will be leaning in with me. I have lost my community of fellow leaners. And that is what concerns me: while I am leaning into the world, the world just might not be leaning in to me.