Leaning in: Local women leaders tell their stories

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 31, 2013

Scenes from the past came to mind as I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
Among other things, Sandberg describes ways women unintentionally hold themselves back. Countless times, I’ve experienced one of the scenarios she describes.
People gather around a conference table that doesn’t have enough chairs for everyone in the meeting. Often, Sandberg says,those who choose to sit in the background will be women. Out of politeness, shyness, self-doubt or not wanting to seem presumptuous, they let others take the seats while they watch from the sidelines.
To those of us who are more comfortable in the background — literally and figuratively — Sandberg gives a firm nudge.
“Sit at the table.”

Chief operating officer of Facebook, Sandberg describes several external factors she’s seen hinder women in the corporate world, But she spends the most time addressing forces at work within us — from fear of risk-taking to the desire to put family first.
Which made me wonder: Do other women in leadership or managerial positions think they ever held themselves back?
“That’s a complex question in a Southern, male-dominated town,” one woman responded to my emailed question.
Almost to a woman, those I asked said having children and keeping family life stable influenced career choices during child-rearing years.
As for other factors Sandberg describes — being polite, having self-doubt or lacking ambition to do more — their responses varied. Here are excerpts from the thoughts they shared:

Theresa Parker Pierce, former Teacher of the Year: “As a true Southern lady, I think I find myself holding back often. Being Teacher of the Year 2011-2012 brought me out of my shell. I joined Toastmasters and learned public speaking skills.
“Through a series of positive experiences, I have grown past the shy teacher who began teaching at North Hills in 1981. I became National Board Certified in 2015. I earned my masters from Catawba College at the age of 53.
“Volunteering with the lively Kaye Hirst at the Rowan Museum for the last 10 years increased my knowledge of Rowan County history. She taught me how to be an Old Stone House docent and strive for accuracy in representing the facts in an entertaining style. I am still basically shy but I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Beth Dixon, District Court judge: “When I reflect back on my professional life, there may have been one or two opportunities I passed on because it wasn’t a good fit for the family. An example is when I wasn’t working full time after my daughter Grace was diagnosed with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. It was important for me to concentrate on her therapies and be available to manage all the doctors’ appointments and help her achieve her full potential. As she got healthier and less medically involved, I went back to working full time.
“It’s a balancing act, though, and I believe that I would have lost more in the way of quality of life and family time than I ever would have gained by more status or money in my professional life. So I can’t agree that family responsibilities ever ‘held me back,’ just influenced my decisions.”

Kyna Foster, executive director of Rowan Helping Ministries: I took the journey that worked for me. Two of my three children were born while I was in college so I don’t feel like family held me back. I took 19 to 20 hours of classes each semester and a full summer school schedule and worked 20 hours a week. I had a 4.0 in every one of those classes. I enjoyed being Mom, student and employee. I find I am happiest and perform better when I am busy. …
“I love working. And my first 10 to 12 years out of college I usually received a promotion every year or so with more responsibility, challenges and accountability. I enjoyed working and the joy of accomplishment. At one point one of my children told me, “Mommies are supposed to be home before dark, especially in the summer time.” This was a reminder that I was missing out on a time in life I could never get back.
“By the time I moved back to Salisbury, I was a single mom. I made an effort to work eight- to nine-hour days, but no more unless I had a deadline. Now my children are grown. Although I love work and building a career, I wish I had managed to make it to more of my children’s sporting events and I am sure they wish I would have picked them up from school on time more often”.

Avis Williams, principal, Salisbury High School: “I can definitely relate to the experience that many other women in leadership share: sometimes feeling intimidated or lacking confidence. I have also dealt with hoping that I don’t come across as too aggressive when I do assert myself. I don’t believe that men think about these aspects of their leadership style. … The expectation is that men can be aggressive and they are considered effective, hard-nosed, no-nonsense, driven, etc. Women, on the other hand, are considered something else …
“I grew up shy and it’s hard for me to pinpoint when or how I evolved; but I did, emotionally and spiritually. My favorite quote sums up what I use to motivate and encourage myself:”
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
— Marianne Williamson

Francis Taylor, owner of Taylor Designs: “My first leaning in of sorts was taking a receptionist job for a Southpark/Charlotte development company just to get my foot in the door. There were no females in leasing, just secretaries. When a male broker showed up with Federal Express Executive Management and no appointment with our building owner/broker to see our new high-rise building, I put the answering service on for an hour. I then showed them the available top two floors, captured their space planning needs and started a plan. … Fed Ex later signed a 10-year lease with my space plan after strolling all over Charlotte to see other options. … I never had to answer the phone again after that week.”

Judy Grissom, superintendent, Rowan-Salisbury Schools: “I really do not believe that I ‘held myself back’ but rather ‘allowed’ my career to unfold — being ready to accept the next opportunity as it presented itself. Guess you could say that my life just happened along the way and I accepted each challenge as it unfolded!”

Rita Foil, public information officer, Rowan-Salisbury Schools: “I can identify with Sandberg’s view of women’s self doubt. I believed early on that there were many more things that I could not do than things that I could. The beauty in my life is that each opportunity, each job, was a building block to the next phase that lead me to the job I have today. Early on, I would have never thought about pursuing a public relations career in the public school system and now I cannot imagine doing anything different!”

Dari Caldwell, director, Novant Health Rowan Medical Center: “I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as holding myself back, because it is what I wanted, but there was a time that I turned down a significant promotion because of family responsibilities. When my children were 4 and 8, I was given an opportunity, by my board chairman, to throw my hat in the ring to become president of the hospital where I worked. I knew that to be effective as a hospital president, one needed to instill about 200 percent effort, time and attention. To do so would have meant tremendous time away from my children at a point in life I felt they needed me most. I have never regretted that decision…
“Working in a female-dominated world, I have often seen women hold themselves back, but it is almost always due to family demands. I often tell women that having a career outside the home is like trying to have your cake and eat it, too. It requires a lot of balance and time management skills, but it can be done and done well!”

Diane Fisher, head of school, Salisbury Academy: I was a child of the ’60s when all the rules were changing. I was the little sister with two older brothers. Three boy cousins live a few houses away. … I didn’t like it when I was told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. It made me mad enough to want to prove them wrong. …
“When I graduated college in the early ’80s I took a job at a major bank in N.C. collecting past due car payments and repossessing cars. I was the first woman in my territory to have that job. It might have been an advantage because people were not threatened by me and opened up to me about their situations more than the stories I heard from my male colleagues. … I felt respected and appreciated and never felt I had to hold myself back.
“Now, I serve as the principal, or head of school, for Salisbury Academy so I am in a position of authority in my job. … My Board of Trustees is mostly men, but my administrative team is mostly women, and I do not sense that any one of us holds back because of our gender or feels any less respected. I have served on local boards of several organizations, and I see a shift away from the ‘good old boys’ network which was prevalent in the ’80s.
“There have been times in my life that I have chosen not to pursue a higher level career, but I consider myself fortunate to have had that choice. I wanted to have children and stay home with them. … Now that I am back in the workforce, I enjoy the excitement of meeting new people, and learning what is new in the field of education, and working with my colleagues to plan for the future. …
“Eight years ago I fought breast cancer and one of my favorite T-shirts was one that said ‘Fight Like A Girl.’ And I did, no holding back. I’d had plenty of experience.”

A final note: One of the points Sandberg makes is that having a supportive and flexible spouse is essential for women who want a seat at the corporate table.
In fact, I would say it’s the key to success in life for anyone — male or female, at the corporate table or the dinner table.
I received one response that illustrated what can happen when that is not the case. I’m withholding the writer’s name and identifying details, and there is always another side to the story. But her voice needs to be heard. She speaks for many:
“I feel my own career was greatly sidelined by choosing and remaining with a very inconsiderate partner. … When (our first child) was born, it was my responsibility to find daycare, get up at 5 a.m. and feed the baby, pack her bag, take her to daycare and pick her up. When daycare arrangement after daycare arrangement failed, it was my responsibility to take time off from work. … The saddest day of my life is the day I packed my desk at (work) and drove home for the last time, all the while telling myself it was temporary. …
“I am very bitter about the sacrifices I made. I love my children, but I am now … trying to put my life back together after being used as a glorified housekeeper and nanny. I didn’t have a real partner. … I gave up too much. But I didn’t know how else to make it work.
“I fear that although Sheryl makes some extremely valid points, she glosses over the complexity in which so many work-life balance decisions are made. I tried to lean in. I wanted a strong family and a fulfilling career. … But leaning in without an extensive support system — in the workplace (family policies and affordable daycare, equitable pay, no workplace gender bias) or the family sphere (a real partner) — is simply not doable. My hope for the new generation is that with self confidence and education, they will stand firm and chose partners with equal footing.”
I feel for her and for every other woman who finds herself in a similar situation. Taking care of home and family is a wonderful choice — a powerful choice — when it is your choice, not one forced upon you.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.