Mar 25, 2013

Taking steps to reach our full potential

Commentary

Ailisha Macharia

Taking steps to reach our full potential
Ailisha Macharia (Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)

It has long been said that the social structure of the job industry must grow to better represent minorities. However, this institutional change has come too slowly, and notable improvements in female-to-male ratios in the workforce have failed to manifest. Nonetheless, according to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, there is real change that women can realize in their own lives.

Sandberg recently made the cover of Time Magazine for her new perspective on why fewer women are attaining high-level positions in the workforce. Sandberg invites women to take an introspective approach by calling attention to three points.

“Sit at the table”: women tend to attribute their success to external factors, underestimating their capabilities, and thus do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce.

“Make your partner a real partner”: in society, men are pushed more to succeed, whereas women tend to take responsibility over house and childcare. This engenders imbalanced relationships, and yields women who are not as invested in their work in contrast to their male counterparts.

“Don’t leave before you leave”: when women start to think about having children, they lean back, Sandberg says. They start making room for their child at work when they may not even be pregnant yet. Thus, they do not take on new challenging projects, or accept promotions with more responsibility. As a result, says Sandberg, women find themselves disengaged in their job and have less incentive to return once they become mothers.

Reflecting upon my own life, I have been accountable for my own unrealized potential because of behavioural humility. After working as a lifeguard for my municipal district for a year, my boss called me into his office to offer me a promotion to the position of supervisor. To my own surprise, I rescinded the offer because I lacked confidence in my lifeguarding skills, and the failed to realize I was in the ranks of my superiors. In retrospect, I realized that the reason he was offering that position was due to his confidence in my abilities, and belief that I was an asset to the staff. Whether I exhibited the same symptoms that Sandberg diagnosed is debatable. The fact is I don’t have a legitimate reason as to why I turned down that promotion. A few weeks later, a less experienced male took the position instead.

There is much-needed institutional and social change, so that an employee’s ability is not negated by complacent behaviour. However, these changes will not occur as immediately as it is needed. Sandberg’s points offer us suggestions to remedy these partial constructs. She gives us a quick-fix in which we can change our approaches and attitudes. Sandberg asks us to be aware of ourselves—not just girls and women, but everybody whose behaviour is shaped by society—and calls for more self-vigilance. This is what is needed for more successful careers, more deserved recognition and a more representative demographic in every job industry.

Women are, without question, the most oppressed group in the world. In any society, women have had to overcome disadvantage, prejudice and underestimation. Sandberg’s points address something that is unjust, yet real: certain socially manifested tendencies are constraints to women’s advancement in the workplace, and these preferences are deeply embedded in the employment industry. Thus, one interprets Sandberg’s advice as a change from the inside-out. Once those disadvantaged come into a position of power in which they can change the institutions that oppressed them, social progress can happen.

This is very important. Top-tier jobs are an undoubtedly influential factor in the future of invention, innovation, and development. If we continue to dismiss the misrepresentation of minorities, and fail to address the social issues so deeply sanctioned in society, much needed potential progress will be lost in negligence. This is progress we can no longer afford to lose.

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