October 28th, 2011 | 6:00 am

Intrepid Woman: Leaning In – A New Graduate in the Real World

filed under Intrepid Women Series

EJThompsonContributed 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.”

And?

The F-Word

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.

8 comments

  1. banker2

    Excellent article.

  2. Dana Theus

    EJ

    I feel for you, I really do. My experience has been the same and yet different. I have always leaned in, pretty much gender-blind and yet constantly surprised that many woman see gender-bias that I don’t. That said, I’ve made many of the same choices of other women have who decided targeting the glass ceiling directly just wasn’t as interesting as going around it into entrepreneurship. From this vantage point I see things differently and see the power women leave unclaimed – for a variety of reasons, some of which I understand and some of which I don’t. I’ve come to the conclusion that women are like all humans and come in a wide variety of flavors.

    I believe that if you stay leaning in you’ll find others like you and provide a model for even more. Learn to tap into your personal power, which being a woman may be more available to you than many of your male colleagues. Sandberg is right. You can do what we did not on a grand scale. Don’t stop before you start.

    Good luck.

  3. Suzanne

    EJ,

    Don’t give up – not everyone has the same perception of the world and the same goals. I have worked in male dominated industries my entire career of 30 years and have met all types of people. Some expect you to take a more supportive (traditional) role and others push you forward.

    Sometimes I have to convince myself to take the next step up that ladder, that I can be successful there as well – all I have to do is look at my male colleagues and say to myself “Why are they able to do it and I think I cannot?”

    Don’t give up,

  4. Corinna

    Great article! I agree with the others above that you must continue to lean in! The good news and the bad news is that you ARE the future. Your decisions and actions will help drive the change in the American workforce. I agree with Dana that many women do leave power unclaimed; however I also know that some women you will cross paths with are just tired of the fight. They have existed in male dominated companies for many years and it is the small daily inequities and degradations which wear women out over time. I spent most of my career in the IT industry and I can tell you few women had the endurance to hang in there on their own. Other women just don’t have the right skills or development to claim the power. The supportive environment you thrived on in college will be lacking in the workforce. You should find strong mentors (NOW!) in your early career years to help support your growth. I believe you can do anything you want as you lean in, however no woman can do it alone… build a tribe to support you. You ARE the generation who will change the workforce dramatically, and with your smarts and strength you will make it positive change :)

  5. Nakia

    EJ,

    Thank you for sharing this experience with other women leaders. Yes, you MUST continue to “lean in”. As you meet other women who share your spirit of empowerment, remember to stay connected to them. This connection will help you develop your new “learning circle”. One of my mentors is a Barnard alumni (Frances Sadler, former Barnard Alumni President). She always speaks highly of the relationships she developed at Barnard.

    I am a women who “leans in” every day in all things. I am committed to strenthening how women are viewed as leaders. While reading your article, I was inspired and encouraged to know that young leaders like you ARE striving to make the workplace and all places better. Please feel free to contact me wheneven you need to be encouraged. Being a 2011 feminist is AWESOME! Be PROUD!

    Nakia James-Jenkins

  6. alana

    EJ-

    Totally agree with all the comments thus far. I graduated in 2010 and have been learning to navigate the same waters you discuss in this article. The Barnard Bubble, as you call it, is spot-on. Sororities and/or college friend groups provided the support needed to tackle challenges. In the “real world” you’re isolated and forced to provide that support for yourself. Corinna is right about mentors– find one immediately. Doesn’t matter if this person is in your company or even in your industry– s/he just has to be older, wiser, and someone you really connect with. It requires reaching out and getting a little vulnerable– this person isn’t going to drop into your lap. But having a sounding board whose values match your own and who understands you will give you the safe place to voice the concerns and realizations you discuss in your article without the backlash you received from your female coworker/s. This first year and a half has been a HUUUGE transition period for me, and it sounds like you’re going through the same. Trust me, you will find your footing, but it takes a while. Always keep your chin up, your eyes forward, and remain steadfast in your values and convictions. You can never regret being true to yourself. Best of luck! <3

  7. K Major

    EJ, Your article brought tears of joy. Always speak your truth, always.

  8. Alisandara

    Stay strong stay positive. Know that there are others in search of sisterhood and the bonds that form when strong women discuss with candor the wins and learnings of both career and personal growth. The path to finding these connections isn’t always simple or obvious. Some of the most informative and meaningful relationships I have built in Corporate America have had serendipitous starts. Be open to new people and new experiences with the knowledge that even in stumbling we learn about ourselves as well as those around us and we have more clarity of those who will lean with us into the future.