I haven't paid much attention to the frenzy over Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling feminist manifesto "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead." Sandberg's new book was not on my must-read list. I have no desire to climb the corporate ladder to COO. I am single and don't have children. My challenges to balance work and family life are the result of my own obsessive work habits -- not the fact that my lazy husband won't do the laundry.
So when I went to hear Sandberg speak at the Professional BusinessWomen of California 24th annual conference last Thursday before a packed house of 4,000 women at Moscone Center in San Francisco, I didn't expect that much of what she had to say would apply to me.
Yet Sandberg got my attention when she started talking about the root causes behind the vast disparity between men and women in leadership roles. Specifically, why women are 50 percent of the population and 59 percent of college graduates yet men continue to overwhelmingly dominate the upper echelons in the public and private sectors.
The Facebook COO said gender stereotyping that starts in young children discourages girls from developing leadership skills.
Girls are taught to try to strive to be well liked rather than to lead.
"We use the word "bossy" for our daughters," Sandberg said. "We don't use that word for our sons."
Yet bossiness -- getting people to do what you want them to do -- is a key skill for executive leadership.
What message do we send to our little girls when we tell them that it's an undesirable trait for them to have?
I thought about my own childhood growing up in the 1970s. I liked to play sports and often organized competitions for the neighborhood kids. Some of the adults in the neighborhood called me a bossy Tom Boy which hurt my feelings. When I joined Little League, I was the only girl. My sixth-grade teacher whose son also played (very poorly) told me girls had no business on the playing field. She and her husband, one of the coaches, drummed me out of the league.
I decided to attend an all-women's college -- Smith in Massachusetts -- to be in an environment that encouraged girls to explore their fullest potential. We were expected to go out into the world and become leaders in our chosen fields. We had many examples in alums like feminist icon Gloria Steinem who was instrumental in launching the women's movement.
I was fortunate to have had this confidence instilled in me at an early age. For when I did experience sexism in the workplace, I never felt like I wasn't good enough. It was their problem.
But as Sandberg pointed out, many women suffer from insecurity in the workplace -- a direct result of what they were told as kids.
Sandberg urged all women to push -- "lean in" she calls it -- and reach for what they want rather than allowing their ambitions to be curtailed by gender stereotypes and their own insecurity.
Women tend to underestimate their readiness for a promotion. They think that they have to possess every single qualification for a job in order to apply. Men on the other hand tend to inflate their credentials.
Obviously this is not true for all men and all women. There are women like Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard and former California gubernatorial candidate, who have achieved tremendous success as leaders of major companies.
Sandberg's point is it is nothing approaching their percentage of the population.
Amanda Wheaton, a 30-year-old Cisco systems engineer, says that when she goes to job conferences, "out of 300 people there, maybe 10 are chicks."
"Sandberg was a good reminder for me and some things I've been thinking about," Wheaton said. "We don't have to wait for all the answers to go for what we want."
Debora Jackson, a marketing and outreach assistant for the Unity Council homeownership center in Oakland, also left inspired.
Though she noted with disappointment that there were so few African-American women like herself in attendance at the conference or on panels.
"You can't participate if you aren't here," said Jackson, 63, who wants to disseminate what she learned into the community.
The conference title was "The Next Genderation, unlocking the full potential of women in the workplace."
One thing is certain. The attendees left fired up and ready to take their workplaces by storm.