As message for businesswomen to 'lean in' goes nationwide, some Tampa Bay women heed the call

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, is the author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Her book has been both embraced and criticized as out of touch.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, is the author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Her book has been both embraced and criticized as out of touch.
Published March 15, 2013

Unless you've been hiding under your cubicle at work, you probably are starting to hear the phrase "Lean in." It's a new call for women to be more self-confident and to lean in to, rather than pull back from, their careers. It's also the title of a book — Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead — written by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and published this month. • Sandberg, 43, is on the March 18 cover of Time magazine. Other Sandberg stories are cropping up in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Wired. Sandberg has also appeared on morning TV shows, 60 Minutes and NPR among other outlets. Her mission? To "reboot" the stalled feminism mission, get women to aim higher at work and start adding more women to the few now in the executive suites of Fortune 500 companies or on their boards of directors. Will this "Lean In" message rally the feminine troops?

Now Sandberg, who attended North Miami Beach High, is starting to reach businesswomen — and businessmen — in markets like Tampa Bay.

Not everyone agrees with her ideas. Some critics complain it's hard for many people to follow the advice of a multimillionaire executive armed with multiple Harvard degrees, personal mentoring from economist and former Harvard president and U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a CEO husband, a live-in nanny and a career path likely to make her a billionaire.

One Fox News commentary (by a woman) says Sandberg's message is fine if women can afford to hire "Mary Poppins" to help with parenting, and if they dismiss maternal desire. Another headline calls her a modern "Marie Antoinette."

Still, the buzz is growing.

"Sheryl's ignited a conversation about the inequity of women in the business world — period," Mindy Grossman, CEO of HSN in St. Petersburg, told CNBC's Maria Bartiromo this past week. "You may be pro or con," said Grossman, a big advocate of getting more women into the top levels of business. "The more conversation, the better."

The rise of women, especially those now in their 20s and 30s, in business and other professions has been a hot topic in recent years. Last fall, the focus was on Hanna Rosin's book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. Her book reminded us how girls increasingly dominate the lists of high school valedictorians, and how more young women than men are attending colleges and law schools.

Making sure more of those young women make it to top leadership positions is part of Sandberg's goals, which go beyond the book and include the creation of a whole Lean In networking community.

I did a spot check of some area women in senior positions to gauge whether Sandberg's "Lean In" mantra was on their radar yet.

Loud and clear.

Heather Kenyon has run the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, the region's tech advocacy group, since late 2011. She has had to assert her personality in a tech and economic development world here dominated by men. She suggests feminism's gotten a "bad rap."

Earlier this month, Kenyon participated in Accenture's International Women's Day and watched Sandberg via a telecast.

"I thought it was an amazing speech and highlighted with specific statistics the issues women still have in the workplace," Kenyon said. "I think by highlighting the reasons why men are more successful in the workplace, women can modulate their behavior."

How so? "The likability factor is one that all women deal with," she noted. "I was told, myself, recently that I needed to be more 'soft' — something that a man would never hear. So I have been on the receiving end of gender bias."

Kenyon, like Sandberg, also happens to be the mother of a 5-year-old girl. "I want her to have every opportunity my son does, so I am very passionate about this subject," she said.

Former bank executive, Florida's chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink says she has not read Lean In yet but has watched several Sandberg interviews. Sink, a Democrat, agrees with most of her points.

"I fly a lot," Sink said Friday. "I pay attention to still how few women are traveling compared to businessmen. This week there were 12 seats in first class on a flight, 10 occupied by men and two by women — one of whom was the obvious spouse of the male traveler. This is no different than 20 years ago."

Like Sandberg, Sink sees little change at the top of business. But Sink says she does see many more women in the lower- and middle-management ranks. Will more of them get to the top?

A few weeks ago at a University of Tampa forum, Sink asked three CEO speakers, all men, how many women were on their boards of directors. Sink called the responses "pitiful" and indicative of the lack of progress over the past decade.

"Basically, the way I see it, the pressure is off," said Sink, who sits on several boards and just became a director of St. Petersburg's C1 Bank. "Get one token woman (on your board) and that's good enough."

Rebecca White isn't hearing much yet around Tampa Bay about Sandberg. But it's a frontburner issue in national circles.

"Too many folks assume women have made all the advances they need to make," says White, professor of management and the James W. Walter Distinguished Chair of Entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa. She says many women and men of college age are surprised to hear that women are not significantly represented in top positions.

"My husband (also an educator at UT) and I have talked about this many times. When either of us provides statistics about the low representation of women in CEO positions or on public boards, we both find our students surprised," says White. Sandberg's new book will help raise that awareness.

The UT professor plans to read Sandberg's book and has already perused several articles about it. She says the book also applies to academia, given the disparity among female and male leaders.

"There are certainly some very successful female University presidents — USF's Judy Genshaft locally, of course — but in business colleges leadership is still very male dominated," she says.

White's area (entrepreneurship education) is no different. "I can count on one or maybe two hands the number of female entrepreneurship chairs and directors in the U.S."

At Tampa's Fowler White law firm, CEO Rhea Law said she's not hearing much about Sandberg yet. But she points out that women make up half of the law firm's workforce with "women in every leadership role at our firm, at all different levels, and throughout our different offices." Three women hold administrative leadership positions, and in addition to the firm's president, women also manage two out of its five different offices, says Law.

Now that's an example of leaning in.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at