A Seat at the Table

Sheryl Sandberg’s third chapter in Lean In addresses an important and relevant topic for women looking to advance their career or simply have their voice heard.  “Sit at the table” is as much a literal as figurative statement. When I read Sandberg’s recount of a meeting where several women did not sit at the conference table, even when asked, it brought back memories of the “kid’s” table during holiday dinners.  Ours was a folding card table with one unsteady leg, covered with a paper table cloth with pictures of Thanksgiving turkeys or Santa’s in red suits smoking a pipe (well before we all caught on to the surgeon general’s warnings about the hazards of smoking!)  While this seating arrangement suited me for many years, I distinctly remember, at some point in my early teens, yearning to sit at the large, formal dining table with the adults.  So why, when given the opportunity, do some women still choose to sit on the sidelines? 

Sandberg shares on her views of women feeling like “frauds” or “imposters” linked directly to our ability to underestimate ourselves – not on rare occasions, but continuously.  We simply don’t believe we’re as good as we really are.  When we do take credit, Sandberg states that we usually attribute the credit to external factors such as “luck, assistance from others and hard work”.  Apparently, we don’t beat our chests and shout at the top of our lungs “I am woman hear me roar!”

She’s right.

I thought about Sandberg’s comments and their applicability to my own career.  I can occasionally remember taking a seat in the back of the room and allowing others to sit at the table, when I should have been right there with them.  I honestly can’t recall what prompted me to take this stance but I sat on the sidelines enough to know that something inside me kept me there.  Maybe I was channeling the “imposter syndrome” Sandberg speaks to in the book.

Did I routinely underestimate my abilities?  Absolutely!  For years, I would take great care conducting my annual self-assessment pointing out all the areas where I could improve, and taking credit only in the ‘soft skill’ areas such as “plays well with others”, “never runs with scissors”.  You get the point.  I have been counseled by my male colleagues that no one should rank themselves or others as excelling at anything because room for improvement always exists, only to discover that they had ranked themselves at excelling.  You can’t make this stuff up!

Many women don’t seek promotional or stretch opportunities, thinking if they don’t have the exact experience they aren’t qualified.  Promotional and stretch assignments by their very nature are opportunities to learn, develop and grow.  We’re not supposed to know everything when we’re expanding or stepping up in roles.  So go ahead and ask for that promotion, take proper credit for a job well done and give yourself an excellent rating, because you are worth it.

I’d like to hear your stories about failing to or taking a seat at the table.  What prompted you to do one or the other?  

 Speak loudly, step boldly!July 31st, 2013 4:22pm Beth Bierbower Sheryl Sandberg women in leadership