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According to Merit?: The leading question

Every Issue

Cite as: August 2013 87 (8) LIJ, p.83

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg notes that Australian women are not where they should be.

Much has been written about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I do not propose here to compare it to the great feminist tomes as a number of commentators have done. Rather, I want to share my learning from the book, which, as a working lawyer, mother of two young children and partnered, I read from the perspective of Sandberg’s target audience.

In summary, what I learned was this:

  • ambition is not a dirty word;
  • sit at the table and put your hand up (you are not a fraud);
  • mentors and mentoring are key;
  • think of what you would do if you weren’t afraid;
  • done is better than perfect; and
  • you can have a family and a career and thrive.

Any doubts that this book, written by Facebook’s American chief operating officer, has relevance for an Australian audience are addressed on pages 5-6, where Sandberg notes that “Australian women hold about 9 per cent of executive officer positions and board seats” and “only 12 of the chief executive officers of the ASX 500 are women”.

Early in her book, Sandberg sets out the primary problem she hopes can be overcome, claiming that:

“For many men, the fundamental assumption is that they can have both a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life. For many women, the assumption is that trying to do both is difficult at best and impossible at worst. Women are surrounded by headlines and stories warning them that they cannot be committed to both their families and their careers. They are told over and over again that they have to choose, because if they try to do too much, they’ll be harried and unhappy. Framing the issue as a work-life balance – as if the two were diametrically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out . . . not only can women have both families and careers, they can thrive while doing so”.

She devotes the rest of the book to providing insights and tips on just how women can have families and careers and succeed at both.

Among her tips are that we women need to “increase our self-confidence . . . get our partners to do more at home (and) not hold ourselves to unattainable standards”. Women are increasingly becoming the main, if not equal, household breadwinners, and increasing numbers of female lawyers are a part of this trend. Both managers and employees within the legal profession need to adapt to this change for the future viability of the profession.

The book also addresses the concept of “stereotype threat” being the risk that, in the absence of proactive measures to achieve equality, genders will revert to type. To avoid stereotype threat, particularly within the legal profession, I believe managers need to address the subtle ways in which gender stereotyping persists, despite policies to the contrary. More needs to be done to actively encourage and support women lawyers (with and without children) to reach leadership roles. Discussions about ambitions and career trajectories should not be guided by a lawyer’s gender.

Sandberg observes that women tend to say no to opportunities because they feel they don’t have the relevant qualifications or knowledge. She urges women to embrace such opportunities where they can show that it’s their “ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters” and “to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around”. Conversely, managers should encourage their female employees to take up such opportunities rather than expecting that they will pursue them of their own accord. In the legal profession, to not do so means that many talented and capable female lawyers will miss out on such opportunities, and their employers will fail to get the best out of them.

For women contemplating career progression, this leads into asking the question that Sandberg frames as follows: “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It’s a tough question for many female lawyers who have felt discriminated against on the basis of being a parent seeking work-life balance. It is also one the book examines.

Ultimately, Sandberg’s call to women to “sit at the table” – not to the side or at the back of the room, but to confidently walk in and take their place – will, she says, be a step towards overcoming their self-doubt, or feeling like frauds unworthy of recognition. Her book contains comprehensive coverage of reference materials, practical suggestions and a list of websites that provide further information and support.

If you are lawyer who wants to have a career and family, or you manage such a lawyer, then this is a book you should read.



KATHERINE NAVARRO is a member of the Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) Work Practices Committee. The views expressed are her own and may not be shared by VWL.

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