By Ryan Ozment
In certain aspects, I have been lucky to have strong female role models throughout my life.
My mother was a feisty Texan who frequently went against the grain and did and said whatever she wanted, even when she knew she would be viewed negatively because of it.
In high school, I had a Calculus educator who fostered my love of math and problem solving while also giving me opportunities to lead in various clubs.
In college, there were no female engineering professors in my particular department. As I pursued a concentration, I was given the chance to take a course under an incredible environmental engineering professor–which led to me to taking the environmental engineering career path.
In my first job following college, I was fortunate to be hired under someone who was revered not just because of her incredible intellect but also her ability to lead and help people wherever she could.
Eventually, my once-in-a-blue-moon boss moved on to bigger and better horizons, leaving me without what you could call a “filter” for some of the more frustrating things women have been putting up with in the workplace for decades. In college, I learned how to solve complex differential equations, perform circuit analyses, thermodynamics, etc… but I was not taught how to (from Sheryl Sandberg’s book) “cross a minefield backward in high heels.” It never occurred to me how strange it was that there were no female professors in my department, and I was never enlightened as to how having women professors would have benefited me as a student. I was unprepared for the biases I would face in my career or how to overcome those obstacles.
In July 2015, I was invited to participate in what was presented to me as a “book club.” I reluctantly accepted the invitation and downloaded the book. As a reader of fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy, I did not see myself enjoying the work, but was pleasantly surprised. Sandberg’s book interested me, not just because she was bringing up difficult topics no one had ever pointed out to me before, but because she backed them up with studies and statistics and showed a path I could take to combat these hindrances.
What I thought was a book club was actually a Lean In Circle–a group of likeminded women who could learn from each other and grow, individually as well as a group. I was new to the Jackson area and am a true introvert, but suddenly I found myself in conversations with some of the strongest, most-impressive women I had ever met. We temporarily called ourselves the “Awesome Women” until we could think of something more clever–but ended up sticking with it due to its accuracy.
What a revelation! Suddenly I found that I was not mistaken! That certain remarks made to me and situations I had been put in in only my first year out of school were unacceptable. And that despite my efforts in the past and yet to come, there were and are factors working against me that I could not control but could only attempt to conquer. The difference between past experiences and what the future holds is that now I have 10 of the most fearsome and phenomenal women to count on. There are three major ways that being involved in this Circle changed my life:
1) Sit at the table. And when you’ve finally convinced yourself that you deserve a spot at that table, call on other women to do the same.
I have consistently witnessed hardworking women go above and beyond to put together a roundtable discussion, a brown bag lunch, or an annual conference, just to take a place on the sidelines. Sandberg tells us that we must sit at the table if we want the corner office, but also recognizes that women who are “assertive” sometimes get a bad rap. Being a part of the Awesome Women gave me the confidence to take my deserved place at the table and reminded me not to forget to save a neighboring seat for another.
2) I may not be able to “have it all,” but I can do what’s most important to me.
At this stage of my life, I do not have the struggles that many working women have: a career to manage while also maintaining life with a spouse and/or kids. I do not envy these women, but I am in awe of them. Despite not having these responsibilities, I am a “yes-woman”–always agreeing to do things without realizing I’ve taken on too much until I’m significantly overwhelmed. I cannot have it all. But with the Awesome Women, I was better able to focus on what was important to me and what I wanted to dedicate myself to–or just the small things I needed to incorporate into my life to be a healthier and more stable individual.
3) I found that it is not just the right thing to do but my obligation to help in clearing a path for the women who will come after me and “lean in” to the women who are here with me.
Not everyone has been lucky enough to have such a diverse and large group of supportive women. Before reading Sandberg’s book, I was very much in the dark about the adversity women face, especially in the workplace–maybe through lack of experience or conditioning from being raised in the Deep South–but as a working woman I have seen and experienced so much of it already in less than three years of employment. Therefore, it is my duty to share my Lean In Circle experience with others.