Why women in Singapore don't lean in at work

To hear Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg tell it, most women have mediocre careers because they are reluctant to be too confident and ambitious, lest they come off as aggressive and unmarriageable.

Her controversial book on this, Lean In, was the subject of The Straits Times' first Big Read Meet at the National Library Board (NLB) headquarters in Victoria Street last Wednesday.

The event drew more than 40 Straits Times readers from all walks of life.

In Lean In, Ms Sandberg gives working women the following road map to becoming leaders, and not just followers:

fight their fears;

take as many risks and soak up as much experience as they can;

enlist a respected senior colleague as a mentor;

be relentlessly pleasant against all work odds; and find a life partner who will support them on all scores.

Of course, saying is easier than doing, and most of the participants at last week's Big Read Meet hammered home that point well in a lively, well-considered and often impassioned discussion.

Early on, Ms Lynn Huang, 42, senior marketing director of Motorola Solutions, thought most women did not lean in because they feared failure too much. Quoting Ms Sandberg, she challenged participants: "What would you do if you were not afraid?"

Many, including NLB associate Zainap Osman, 43, wished that women in general would simply ask for what they needed or wanted, such as telecommuting; a retired science teacher, in particular, despaired of how her female students always took a back seat to their more curious and actively involved male classmates.

This was after Mrs Shuba Narayanan, 52, managing partner of HR Strategies, pointed out that some societies, especially in Asia, had conditioned women to be second to men so deeply that "they hesitate to put their right foot forward when managing their careers". For example, another participant shared a time when a female colleague on a key project asked for leave to care for her sick child, the participant wondered why the colleague's husband could not take some days off to help care for the kid. The colleague replied that it never occurred to her to ask that of her husband.

One issue that cropped up was men's expectations of women's behaviour at the workplace.

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