Book Review: Lean In

I have to admit: I’m not done reading yet!

Many of you have heard of Lean In, by current Facebook and former Google execute Sheryl Sandberg, to start the conversation about women in leadership and why there is a lack thereof.

I sometimes blog about my travel with the slant of doing so alone as a female. What I tend to mention less is my work and being a woman in a male dominated workforce. I had considered work a territory I won’t go into in this blog, as I find it blurs the line of professionalism once I start venting or gossiping about that side of my life.

Sandberg’s book, however, resonated with me. It would with any female professional, especially those of us who have well-established careers. There was no way any woman could work this long and not encounter an incident or anecdote similar to those that Sandberg shared from her own experiences in the book.

I’ve now set into a brief routine of reading a chapter at a time, then going into work with the most recent chapter in mind and being aware of my behavior likewise or otherwise.

I am a book snob. I will always evaluate writing style. I’m a terrible writer myself, but I love to read. Lean In is rather basic in writing style. It won’t be wining any Pulitzers. It’s is a narrative, in a didactic style. Sandberg wrote in her introduction that the goal of this book is to serve as a conversation. She accomplished that. At times, I could imagine her in front of the room, talking out these points to us in person. The book is a conversation and she wrote it as one.

I recently was told quite rudely that I was not welcome to participate in a business meeting because I am a woman. The men who told me were mostly foreigners, of a culture I will refrain from specifying. My only salve was I wasn’t the only woman told that and that made the insult feel less personal. It still smarted. I considered myself the senior person present. As much as I knew it wasn’t directed to just me, it took a good week for the emotional reaction to subside, and another week of another project to distract me altogether.

The rejection made me realize that this wasn’t the first time I encountered discrimination based on gender but that, in most of the past incidences, I had an incredibly supportive network that defended me when faced with such attitudes. I lacked it this time around and the hurt and humiliation I faced forced me to realize I needed to start standing up for myself.

A female manager had approached me after that last rejection to give me a morale boost, try to keep me from getting too discouraged. She broached the topic of whether I would be willing to share my lessons and experience for those women who will follow. It was a bit of a reality check to be reminded that I may not longer be considered the newest working generation. At the same time, I never felt more empowered.

That was when I started reading Lean In. Between the timing and the content, I felt like the book was written about me.

I had barely finished the first chapter, The Leadership Ambition Gap, when I went online and ordered a copy to be sent to my father. Growing up in a conservative Asian household, I was taught humility is a virtue. My father once saw me in a somewhat professional setting and commented to me afterward that my confidence was “not pretty.” I felt anything but confident, but I had learned to exude it. In reading this one chapter in Lean In, I knew I had to send a copy to Dad. He adores the notion of accomplished tech sector executives and the book would have more credibility than I in telling him why I needed to appear confident, not humble. The Asian deferential attitude would not serve me well in an American business environment. The fact that I am a woman made it a double-edged sword.

I can go on an on about how I related to the book. At the end, though, every¬† woman can. Sandberg does an incredible job incorporating research that backs up the sentiments, even the subconscious, women feel in being treated differently in a corporate environment. Countering by changing our own behaviours as women isn’t enough.. an awareness needs to be established in the public as a whole. Sandberg attempts this by publishing.. let’s hope many more people, both men and women, will read her book.

More importantly, while Sandberg started the conversation, we need to carry it on.

Those green things..

On the phone with Dad:

Dad: What kind of fruit are there in Kenya?
Me: Mangoes. Lots of Mangoes.
Dad: Oh. Only mangoes?
Me: Well, the usual assortment. Apples, pears, oranges.
Dad: Oh. That’s it?
Me: (thinking.. lightbulb) Papayas. Lots of papayas!
Dad: OK GREAT! I will be happy!

Me, after hanging up: Man, I hope those green things are actually papayas.

I say French Press, you say what??

A conversation between my B&B host, hostess, and me in New Zealand:

Hostess: Would you like some more coffee? We have more in the plunger.
Me: The what??
Hostess: [holding up a stainless steel pitcher]
Hostess: The plunger. Have you seen these before?
Me: I don’t know. What does it look like inside?
Host: I think you Americans call it a French Press.
Me: Oooh! Yeah, I know what it is. Wait. You call it what??
Host: We call it a plunger in New Zealand.
Me: [laughing so hard I almost fall out of the seat]
So, what do you call the household tool you use to unclog the toilet?
Host: [sheepishly] A plunger, too. Honey, we’re called this a French press from now on.

And, to add on top of that, I was compeltely overtaken by laughter for the rest of the morning. Wanting to know what brand of coffee was popular with locals, the couple showed me the packaging for the one they served me.

Robin Hood

A conversation in my Thai language class.

Instructor: [giving me a very dramatic solemn look] I have to teach you a word.
Me: [grinning in anticipation] OK.
Instructor: Robin Hood.
Me: Huh? That’s English.
Instructor: It is slang.
Me: Even better. What does it mean?
Instructor: It is what we call Thai people who go overseas and disappear.
Me: What do you mean disappear? As in get killed?
Instructor: No. Disappear from police.
Me: As in fugitives? People who have done bad things in their home country?
Instructor: No, no. They get visa, they go to America, then they stay for a very long time.
Me: Oh! Illegal immigrants.
Instructor: [pleased that I understood] Chai!
Me: But just Thai people?
Instructor: Yes. Just Thai people go overseas. And only to countries like America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Me: [thoroughly amused by now] You know the story of Robin Hood, no?
Instructor: A little.
Me: Do Thai Robin Hoods send money back?
Instructor: No.
Me: Then Robin Hood’s name is being terribly maligned!
Instructor: It is Thai slang.
Me: But just Thai people? What about all the foreigners here in Thailand?
Instructor: Slang is just for Thai people. farangs don’t need to be Robin Hood.
Me: Oh, they do! So many people go to Cambodia or Laos and come back just to get new visas for Thailand. Also, a lot of people do overstay their visa and just stay put in Thailand.
Instructor: Why would farangs do that??? They have money.

I then had to break the news to him that Thailand, and now more of Southeast Asia, while a popular tourist destination, is also a popular haven for retirees because cost of living is relatively low compared to their home countries. Thailand offers a retiree visa good for a year if the applicant maintains at least US $25,000 in a Thai bank or prove $2200 monthly income. Not every retiree has that. While in relative scale, many retirees are very well off compared to Thais, many are not when compared to their fellow countrymen.

I also pointed out because of Thailand being the hub of a lot of illegal trade, the country also attracts another level of not so attractive expats. Only last year did Thailand and US sign a more robust extradition treaty, with more recognition of both countries’ criminal court.

My instructor’s biggest disappointment in all these revelations? That not all Western foreigners (farangs) living in Thailand are filthy rich.

But, boy, did I try to insert “Robin Hood” in my usage for a long time afterward. Not exactly a regular conversation topic.