Much of the discussion surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's dictum in her recent book Lean In that women self-sabotage their careers by not speaking up and failing to be assertive has revolved around a woman's struggle to fulfill a desire for motherhood and a career. Having not yet entered that stage of life, I cannot speak to the motherhood aspect, about which much has been said. But it seems there is little controversy about this idea that women's docile behavior early on in our career or before motherhood is hindering our success in our professional lives. Sandberg argues women don't speak up because we want to be more "likeable" and cites research to support the contention that there is an inverse correlation with likeability and success for women. She specifically calls out young women, presuming that the reason we won't risk being labelled unlikeable by exhibiting aggressive behavior is because of our inclination to seek our colleagues' approbation. She says to us "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" The thing is, she may be right that we young women self-censor ourselves, but she ignores an alternative and very plausible reason for this -- one that women discuss privately in embarrassed tones. As junior high cliché as it sounds, single, ambitious women often wonder "will he like me if I speak up at the meeting? Will he think I'm obnoxious, overbearing or too aggressive? Might he be turned off and see me as unfeminine if I demand attention or claim leadership?"
This question has played a small part, but a part nonetheless, in my own life, and I wonder if for some other young women, it's an even bigger hindrance. For most of my life, under the tutelage of a mother who never in her life feared being labelled obnoxious, I followed Ms. Sandberg's advice. I was professionally aggressive, the only woman to walk up to the mic at a Q & A, the first to volunteer, the one who asked the most questions in a class. But there was a time in my twenties when I started to doubt myself when engaging in this behavior. When you're single for a while, you naturally start to wonder, am I doing something wrong? And so I began a biopsy of my behavior -- do I come off as too masculine? Do I scare men off? I remember being on a first date at a talk with "This American Life's" Ira Glass at Royce Hall in UCLA years ago when a Q & A session arose and a burning desire to ask a question quietly flared up inside of me. Usually, in situations like this I had always aggressively jumped up or loudly yelled to get a question asked with no fear. But this time, I looked at the man next to me and asked myself what would he think if I did that? I liked him and I wanted him to like me and I started to consider the cost of yelling out my question. Most men don't list aggressiveness as a quality they desire in a mate, so might he just label me as being weird or annoying or attention-seeking if I stand up to raise my hand? By the time I listed out all the possible names a man might call me for asking my question, the Q & A was over and I missed my chance.
I hated myself for censoring my behavior for a guy, but it was not the only date I went on where I chose to act more demurely and avoid incidents that might make me seem like a firebrand. Considering that recent surveys suggest 39% of people have dated a colleague (some surveys suggest the number is as high as 56%) coupled with the existence of a number of women whose love interests go unrequited, a certain percentage of women are monitoring their behaviors at the workplace based on what a guy might think. How many women hold back in speaking up at a meeting, asking for a raise or criticizing a work product because of how a perceived love interest might react?
Of course, this whole discussion is regressive and embarrassing to admit. While for a sizable measure of the population, it is noble and respectable to limit one's career ambitions for the sake of a prosperous household, no woman wants to admit something as juvenile as having not spoken up in a meeting because of a secret workplace crush. But anecdotally, it seems to happen all the time to women I know who are lawyers and executives, so it doesn't seem far-fetched to say some percentage of women out there are doing this. And for single women who desire a relationship, potential love interests are anything but trivial. The desire for love and companionship in navigating the quagmires of our futures is real and universal and a strong motivator in our actions so dismissing these fears is no easy task.
So the next question that arises is how well-founded is this fear we have of turning off men by being "aggressive" or "obnoxious?" Do men really find women who speak up less attractive, or are we just doing this to ourselves because women are as guilty of men of being misguided by societal notions to believe traditional notions of femininity are what men want? I have no idea. But I do know that it doesn't happen to all men. Over a year ago, I was at a different talk for an NPR show, this time it was "Radiolab," and again, when the Q & A rolled around, I had a burning desire to shout in a booming voice my potentially noisome question. This time, I was next to my current boyfriend and for a fleeting second, that old self-doubt entered my mind -- would he think I was obnoxious? I could check with him first and ask him what he thought about my question or tell him to ask for me. But I could no longer pretend to be something I'm not, namely quiet -- maybe I am a little obnoxious, but shouldn't he still like me anyway? So with no warning I shouted out to the hosts on the stage, Jad and Robert, and heard my voice echo as the thousands of people in Royce Hall quieted down to listen to the lone women in the audience who had asked a question. "Good question" my boyfriend whispered and squeezed my hand.
Maybe if we do what Sheryl Sandberg suggests and 'lean in' by risking more aggressive behavior, although there will still be men who will label us as unlikeable or annoying, not all of them will. At the end of the day, all you really need to find is one guy out there who will like you even when you are obnoxious. And if someone thinks you're annoying for being aggressive, then he's probably not the one anyway. And perhaps if we all give up our fear of being a little obnoxious, we'll stop thinking of loud women as obnoxious and redefine what's considered sexy and attractive in the first place. There was a time not that long ago when any woman with a career was considered unattractive and had to listen to countless warnings of you'll never find a husband. But now, that seems as ridiculous and outmoded as Patti Stanger trying to convince women that men don't like curly hair. Men's opinions of what is sexy and confident evolves as our culture's opinions of what is sexy and confident evolves. If we decide we all need to speak up more and be more aggressive in our career-driven daily lives, we can redefine what is attractive to a man. In the meantime, let everyone else talk behind my back about how unlikeable I am. I found one person who's going to like me anyway. Meanwhile, I get to take Sandberg's advice to lean in and be as assertive as any man would be while pursuing my career.