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Yesterday I wrote about my recent experience of being interrupted at work by male colleagues. I would probably have left it there and simply filed the experiences in Barbara’s Big Box of Boring Things about Working in a Boy-Dominated Environment, except for the fact that I am currently reading Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book about what it is like for women working in just such environments.

This is an amazing book and I would highly recommend reading it, whether or not you work in such an environment. It generated some publicity when it came out, partly because she argues that there are things which women can do to improve their chances of success in these environments, which was interpreted in some quarters as a form of victim-blaming, and partly because she is extremely successful and wealthy in her own right, so how could she advise the less wealthy and successful?

In terms of the first argument I feel myself fairly well qualified to comment since I have worked in these environments my entire career, which means for over thirty years (I’m going to stop writing “in these environments”. Please take it as read.). For me, it’s been invaluable since it answers so many of the questions I have about why women are not more successful and why more women are not successful. A year ago I went to an International Women’s Day event at which Cressida Dick was speaking (she rocks, by the way; if you get a chance to hear her speak, grab it).  One of the most interesting things in her talk was to question why, despite various initiatives and programmes to tackle the issue, women are still not attaining senior positions in police forces in any great numbers.  She said that she could see it, but didn’t know what the reason was for it, and I agreed with her; I could see that women aren’t succeeding like men, but I just didn’t think we knew exactly why.

Well, having read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, I have a pretty good idea of the reasons.  She cites numerous studies and research to back up her thinking, much of which is eye-opening. For instance, in one study men and women were shown at random a cv of one of two CEO’s, one called Howard and one called Heidi, and asked for an opinion on them as a person and whether they would like to work for them. Unanimously, both men and women adjudged Howard favourably as a tough, successful but also fair person whom they would be happy to work for. Heidi, on the other hand, was adjudged far less likeable, pushy, self-interested and unsympathetic, and neither men nor women wanted to work for her.  As you will have guessed, the cv’s were identical except for the first name.  Sheryl Sandberg pointed out that in a world in which women know that they will be judged less likeable the more successful they are, it’s not surprising that they shy back from climbing the ladder. 

As for the second point, Sheryl Sandberg did not inherit or marry her money; she made it herself through stock options acquired during her career. People say “Oh, it’s easy for her; she’s got enough money to afford any number of nannies”.  Well, yes, but I ‘d still rather learn from her experience. If you aspire to be a successful football manager, you might be better off going to a talk by Alex Ferguson than one given by the manager of Colchester United.  And besides, I also think this is a prime example of the ” successful woman = bitch” syndrome cited above, and therefore I feel free to ignore it.

Part 3 tomorrow.