Yours truly has FINALLY gotten round to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ and girl am I being blown away! At various points, I actually shed some tears. (Yeah, yeah I know I’m a drama queen lol) I have felt shocked and comforted, simultaneously while reading it. Shocked because apparently many professional women ‘feel like a fraud’, do not opt to ‘sit at the table’, would not dare ‘ask for a raise or negotiate a better package’ and many other personal battles I struggle with. And of course, it is good to know that I am not alone and even amazing fabulous women like Sheryl and other top women CEOs around the world go through these and more.
As I read through, I recalled my own experiences and I will share some few with you. Years ago, I had the privilege of serving as a Liaison Officer for the International Monetary Fund team led by one of their top bosses to a conference. We picked one of their top executives from the airport and on the way to the 5-star hotel where they stayed, I was very quiet. At the hotel restaurant, I dished my food and went to sit quietly in a corner far away from where the two gentlemen I came with ate. The executive saw me and motioned me to come join them, I declined by shaking my head. He insisted! Thank God he did! I picked my plate and sat with them, of course I was quiet except for when a question was thrown at me. I thought, well I am a fresh graduate who knows nothing about these big economic terms they are using in this conversation. Let me not make a fool of myself and say something stupid!
Even though I dared (ok fine, I was forced) to sit at the table, I didn’t speak up. I was afraid of making a mistake and being laughed at, seeming ignorant or putting myself in the spot light for criticism especially when there were men. Who wants to look unattractive anyway?! Personally, this attitude went on for some time until I learned to open up and speak up comfortably.
Then came another problem. Let me illustrate this problem with an example of a situation I found myself in often. I once worked in an organization with very few women at the top (as usual). There was a meeting for some of the senior management team and I was invited. Normally, I wouldn’t have gone for such a meeting but because I was invited to make a contribution I went. Needless to say the senior most executive who invited me thought highly of my opinion even though we had our own share of misunderstandings. However, at the meeting I got ‘looks’ from the other members of the management team especially when I voiced my opinion. It was a look that said ‘You don’t belong here’ Perhaps I didn’t. Perhaps I did. However, that did not matter to me at that moment or afterwards. I was determined to sit at the table and speak up! So I did to the dismay of certain people in that organization. If this had been another time, I would have cowered into my shell but no, not this time. The reward? I got to learn way more about leadership and the intricacies of that industry than I would have learned in my MBA class. This leadership experience I had would later open doors for my professional journey.
I have learnt that it is those who sit at the table and speak up, who are seen and heard. Now, when I go for events, I find empty chairs at the front row and sit. We know that a lot of times, the front rows are reserved for VIPs but I sit there anyway. Sometimes, I am told to sit elsewhere, no problem but most times nobody asks me anything so I sit comfortably. If I have something to say, I raise my hand and get called to speak up. If I make a mistake, big deal. The embarrassment will give me something funny to say when I am narrating what happened at the event.
I really do not see why the fear of being embarrassed must keep women from putting ourselves out there to make strides. I am told men also find it embarrassing when ladies reject their proposals but they keep proposing anyway. Fabulous woman, it is a fact that if we want something we have to go get it. Hearing the word ‘no’ will not kill us and being laughed at will only kill us if we let it. Besides, a lot of times our sense of embarrassment is only in our minds anyway. You are too fabulous not to be seen and heard, so please, sit at that table and speak up!
Oh by the way, if you haven’t read Lean In, please find one. It will bless you with useful insights. Thank you.
Ama Duncan, Corporate Trainer, Founder of The Fabulous Woman Network