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footballThe conversation goes on, stimulated by Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. My brother (who had heard and read several interviews with Sandberg) asked me if the author is “laying a guilt trip” on women who are not qualified or do not want to be senior executives. He made a sports analogy. Quarterbacks, he noted, get a lot more adulation (and money) than tight ends. Some people are qualified and want to be quarterbacks; some are better tight ends. Tight ends do not spend energy wishing they were quarterbacks.

Now, I know that few women play football and that football teams are made up of specialists and a tight end does not necessarily aspire to be a quarterback. But, sticking with the metaphor, here is how I respond to my brother’s question.

The issue is not that good tight ends should be happy and not complain that they are not quarterbacks. The issue is that women who could be good (and happy) “quarterbacks” do not have an equal shot at that position. Women who are qualified to be good “tight ends,” likewise, do not compete for that role on a level playing field.

Sandberg notes that not everyone wants a career or power and that people must define success and happiness individually. Using my brother’s sports metaphor, her goal is to expose what makes some women who could be quarterbacks (seek a leadership position) settle for the position of tight end. Or what makes those who could be good tight ends settle for being water boy — or not get or stay on the field. She urges women to overcome internal barriers and “lean in” and try out for whatever position on the team they want!

Sandberg acknowledges that she is focusing on internal barriers — how women hold themselves back. In my next blog and newsletter, I will talk about how those internal barriers become external barriers due to our gendered view of leadership, power and ambition.