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10 April 2013

Leaning In Together


Photo 1 Lean InLast week, I attended my first Lean In circle meeting at the British Consulate in San Francisco. Although a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II presiding over us imbued the meeting with a sense of gravitas, the event was full of vibrant, informative, and sometimes humorous stories of leaning in and leaning back. I’ll be writing about that truly unique experience in an upcoming blog, but in the meantime, asked my friend and colleague Jennifer Allyn to express her takeaways from the book.

Jennifer is an avid reader (I love holding impromptu book clubs with her when I’m in our New York office) as well as a leading national expert in diversity whose previous Mad Men piece you all raved about. I was so pleased when she sent me today’s guest blog, which I believe brings new insight to the conversation Lean In has ignited around the world — enjoy.



In 2008, PwC hosted a panel discussion about women and ambition in our New York office. We surveyed the audience of 150 partners, staff and guests to understand their perception of the word “ambitious.” While 94 percent of the men said the term was positive, only 57 percent of the women agreed. Instead a quarter of the women—and strikingly, none of the men—felt ambition was a negative word. Fast forward to today: Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has ignited a national debate about why this gender gap exists and what women can do to “lean in” to leadership. It’s an important conversation that I hope will inspire PwC women to aim even higher, but as our panelists demonstrated personal drive is only part of what it takes to have a successful career. The other elements of the equation are opportunity and recognition. That’s why coaches need to lean in too, and use the insights in Sandberg’s book to help close the gender gap in leadership.

The full version of this video appears at the end of this article

An entire chapter of Lean In is devoted to advising women to “sit at the table.” Sandberg tells a story about hosting a meeting where a group of women literally sit in chairs at the back of a conference room instead of joining the men seated at the table. She attributes this behavior to a lack of confidence where women underestimate their abilities and feel they don’t belong.

How can we make sure women sit at the table? It turns out encouragement is critical. In a study Photo2 Lean Inabout politics, researchers found that female politicians were much more likely to have run for public office because someone encouraged them to do so, while men “self-started” without that support. As Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, noted in our panel, “Women don’t run [for office] … unless somebody calls them and says, ‘have you thought about running?’ … so encouragement is huge.” The same dynamic operates in the workplace and here coaches, managers, and engagement partners play a vital role in encouraging women to take on leadership. Instead of waiting for staff to volunteer or promote themselves, leaders can take the following actions:

  • Randomly assign team members to lead internal meetings
  • Rotate who attends client meetings and delivers presentations
  • Explicitly invite women to compete for opportunities and illustrate why you think they are qualified for the role
  • Don’t assume someone is not interested in an assignment because they didn’t ask for it

These simple steps can make a big difference because true confidence is built through successful performance and you can’t perform without opportunities.

Lean In is full of research findings and one of the most disturbing is the Heidi/Howard experiment. Students were given a Harvard Business School case describing how an entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen used her real-life network to succeed in business. Half the students read the original story about Heidi, while the other half received a version with the protagonist’s name changed to Howard. Although the facts were identical, both male and female students liked Howard better; they didn’t want to work for Heidi because she was considered too self-promoting. The researchers conclude that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” 

As Anna Fels, author of Necessary Dreams:  Ambition in Women’s Changing lives, told our audience, “When women assume leadership positions, unlike men, they get a lot of negative recognition. They get negative feedback about their femininity…about their style.” This double standard in how we recognize achievement is clearly one of the reasons so many women view ambition as a negative word.

Sandberg advises women leaders to let go of wanting to be liked. However, supervisors — male and female — also have a responsibility to question comments like she’s “too aggressive” or has “sharp elbows.” Merely asking whether the same behavior would be described that way if demonstrated by a man sends a powerful signal. The journalist Anna Quindlen once wrote that we want our women leaders to be “tough as nails, and warm as toast.” Naming that double bind, and recognizing the impossibility of displaying both qualities at the same time, is an important step to eliminating it.

The business case for gender diversity is clear for our profession. In the U.S. women earn the majority of college degrees and represent half our new hires each year. Bob Moritz outlines the role CEOs can play, but you don’t need to be a senior leader to create change. Each of us can profoundly influence the aspirations of the people who work with and for us. If we want women to lean in we need to help cultivate those dreams. Treating ambition as a collaboration, where coaches are an integral part of the process, will help PwC maximize the talents of all our people.

Jennifer Allyn photo_red

Jennifer Allyn is a managing director in PwC’s U.S. Office of Diversity, where she is responsible for designing programs to retain, develop and advance women.

Read about PwC Lean In experiences here: Maria Castañón Moats, Diana Weiss, Carol Sawdye, Terri McClements, Laura Cox Kaplan

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What a great article. Thank you Jennifer, for helping all of us women in PwC to Lean In.

Firstly, I am grateful for being introduced to this career path, there could not have been a finer introduction than in the PWC environment. I was extensively trained in Santiago Chile and maintain contacts with auditors there and locally. This experience has fine tuned my natural abilities into audit skills that have kept me constantly employed and desiring to see myself and others advancing and improving the profession. Nevertheless as an alumni of PWC and someone who maintains contact with the partners from my previous firm, as well as many managers and associates of PWC, USA and PWC Latin America, I am beyond shocked to see the Senior Partner of PWC involved in the Lean In Movement. PWC along with many others in this industry have a work culture of beyond excessive work hours and travel requirements that make it nearly impossible for particularly women and people with families to be part of the audit profession. This culture does not necessarily breed more productive workers or efficient audits, but a generation of people who for the prestige of advancement in the organization, go to all extents to prove they do not have a personal life ( a life with responsibilities as a wife, mother etc.) This edges out those who may be naturally skilled and able to contribute to establishing more efficient work standards, yet require personal home time to be part of their families and care for loved ones. Such a culture is stagnating to the profession and society. Healthy well balanced people build healthier family environments, which is the foundation for better, more ethical business practices and a wholesome society.

Firstly, I am grateful for being introduced to this career path, there could not have been a finer introduction than in the PWC environment. I was extensively trained in Santiago Chile and maintain contacts with auditors there and locally. This experience has fine tuned my natural abilities into audit skills that have kept me constantly employed and desiring to see myself and others advancing and improving the profession. Nevertheless as an alumni this was definitely my experience, I saw no leniency to accommodate family life, and extreme demands of time and travel. The small firm I worked for over the past 5 years split up last year and in my interviews the first thing most audit firms inquired on were my personal commitments, being a woman with a child appeared to definitely be a negative quality. A few of the partners from my old firm established their own practice and I was asked to join them. It was apparent that my deficit as a mother would not enable me to have a chance to demonstrate my productivity and level of understanding with a bigger firm and therefore I had no option but to return to a small firm. In addition the small firm I work for now 2 weeks ago hired a senior from KPMG, and in our first staff lunch she spoke of a similar experience. Wow all auditors I know to date speak of this experience. This culture is known as the norm to most auditors I know in Florida and New York. The only thing sad about the comments I have made are that for many/probably most they are true. Yet these professional adversities have pressured me to complete more master credits enabling me to take my CPA Exam which I am working on now, and learn to constantly formulate reasoning and organization skills that make my work more reliable and my engagements more profitable to keep these few doors of opportunity open.

Can women who are mothers of milineals still lean in or is it really time to lean back? I ask because that is my situation. Being in my late 40s with my only child in college, now, I can pursue the career I have always wanted and with focus but I worry that is too late for me and other women in my situation.

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