Lean In co-founder lists her goals for 2017
By Lou Fancher
Women live in circles; men live in straight lines.
Admittedly, that’s a generalization. But to view the life of Lean In co-founder and adviser Debi Hemmeter is to observe overlapping loops that encompass family, friends and career.
The 51-year-old Hiller Highlands resident recently moved, a five-minute drive from her longtime Piedmont home. Although her neighborhood is new, she said her “girl crew” support team is firmly rooted.
It’s unlikely that the philosophies, intellect and sheer drive that caused her to pitch a proposal that became the women’s gender parity organization Lean In to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg will diminish.
“My 2017 goal is to learn to code,” she said. “I’m going to learn enough to manage a team of coders. The biggest error we’re making with girls and women is that we don’t teach computer science in a way that they can stay engaged and active. More women graduate from college than men, but only 18 percent hold computer science degrees. It’s a handicap.”
Lean In, which boasts 30,000 women’s support circles in 154 countries, developed out of Hemmeter’s driving energy.
After working at Wells Fargo, PepsiCo and other companies, Hemmeter’s mentoring to women and her role as a mother of two biological children and a stepson was leading to burnout.
The Chicago native saw Sandberg’s 17-minute “Why we have too few women leaders” TED Talk in 2010. She called Sandberg to propose creating a nonprofit that would help women lean in to their career ambitions.
Sandberg said, “Thanks but no thanks, I’m too busy,” Hemmeter told a sold-out audience March 6 as a featured speaker at the East Bay Women’s Conference in San Ramon.
But 18 months later, Sandberg said, “Execute it, use my name.”
Launched in 2012 and followed by Sandberg’s bestselling 2013 book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” the book has sold more than 2.5 million copies in 47 languages and Lean In has 900 large companies like Disney and PepsiCo as partners.
During the presentation at the annual women’s conference, Hemmeter congratulated the seven men attending, but told the other, 500-plus women in the audience to raise the number of men in the future.
“Next year, bring a male counterpart,” she said. “If we want an equal world where we run 50 percent of the companies and 50 percent of the government, we have to lean in together.”
Hemmeter said that data gathered by the organization has yet to show if it is “moving the dot” on parity, but survey responses from Lean In circles have women reporting increased salaries.
“I think we’ll see a radical change in gender parity in my children’s generation,” she said.
However, Hemmeter cited some findings — 60 percent of men pursue jobs for which they aren’t qualified and figure they’ll learn on the job; women decline the job or don’t even apply.
Other studies prove a man’s success increases his likability; a woman’s success makes others perceive her as less likable.
And she told a personal story about a friend whose daughter was promoted several classes above her peers at a dance school.
“She wondered if she should not tell her daughter, or if she should call the other mothers and say it must be a mistake,” Hemmeter said. “I said, ‘If it was your son making varsity football, are you calling the coach to ask if it’s a mistake? No, you’d say my son is a stud.’ Why is success such a big thing for girls?”
Hemmeter said men who believe women should receive parity and support Lean In typically had strong mothers who were role models or they have daughters and want them to have successful careers.
Hemmeter’s upbringing was far from cozy. Her parents were alcoholics and, although her father once told her she could become the first female president, her mother had a different story.
“My mother told me if my grandiose plans didn’t work out, I’d need to take typing and shorthand and be a secretary like other women,” she said.
Hemmeter credited mentors such as Eva Sage-Gavin, who held human resource leadership positions at PepsiCo during Hemmeter’s tenure, and Tim McGee, a colleague whose salary negotiation advice served her well at Wells Fargo.
Mentoring her college-age daughters, Lauren and Laine Ratzer, Hemmeter tells them to do deep research into the companies in which they’re interested, practice answering interview questions in front of a mirror, talk less and listen more during interviews, dress appropriately, follow-up afterward — and of course, complete those computer science courses to be competitive.