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Sheryl Sandberg's Book Should Be Named Stand Tall

Entrepreneur Vanessa Merit Nornberg explains what's wrong with the Lean In women's leadership initiative.
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To the well-intentioned women (and men) creating and participating in women's initiatives like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In--I'd like to point out a tremendous flaw.

Why is it that all initiatives involving women in the workplace--including Lean In--start with soft words like "encourage," "share," and "support." Talk about reductive. Is this really all women need to be successful in the workplace?  Where are the strong words like "forge," "teach," or "lead"?  If women are concerned about getting equal access to opportunities for advancement--so they can make equal progress in their careers--they need to use vocabulary that accurately represents all that they bring to the workplace.

Follow my logic. As a business owner, if you get a cover letter from a job applicant that starts off by saying, "I am interested in this position because I am great at sharing," would you hire that person? I wouldn't. While "sharing" is a good skill, it's basic, and something I expect anyone on my team--man or woman--to do.

Also, women and men who perpetuate this kind of soft, feel-good lingo are not opening productive dialogues, but helping perpetuate the stereotypes that mothers like mine helped to break by getting educated, taking control of career opportunities, and teaching daughters and sons that anyone can be good at anything. Just like media images for decades have shaped women's ideas on what sexy is, what their bodies should look like, and what roles are theirs to play, the words these gender-oriented groups and their members use subtly undermine the spirit of both women and men everywhere.  

Now let's look at some facts. Statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Labor show that women comprised 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce in 2010; the department projects the number will rise to 51 percent between 2010 and 2018. And if Metal Mafia, the company I run, is any indication of where things are headed, that number will be even higher, as we already exceed it. 

Clearly, there is no shortage of women in the workforce anymore. What we have is fewer women in leadership roles. It's not hard to understand why, considering the soft, second-string words Americans continue to use when talking about women in the workplace, even by groups meant to encourage women to strive. People in leadership positions, whether male or female get there because they do a lot more than "share." And, most likely, the rise to the top is based on a lot more than mere "encouragement" or "support." People in leadership positions get there because they create opportunities, push past challenges, and win the confidence of partners, colleagues, clients, and, even, critics.

Women looking to succeed in business need to decide that advancement cannot be obtained by quotas nor through permission or endorsement. It is to be earned, through merit, hard work, smarts, and persistence.

Leaders of any gender don't "lean in" or "lean out". They stand tall.

Last updated: Apr 10, 2013

VANESSA MERIT NORNBERG | President, Metal Mafia

In 2004, Vanessa Merit Nornberg opened Metal Mafia, a wholesale body and costume jewelry company that sells to more than 5,000 specialty shops and retail chains in 23 countries. Metal Mafia was an Inc. 500 company in 2009.




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