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This Tech Executive Wants All Women To Lean Out. Here's Why

5min read
Career

Rhonda Vetere is an international executive, speaker, author, and triathlete. And, if all that wasn't enough, she is also a significant figure in supporting women across the globe and "empowering women and girls to seize their moments and share their passions with the world."


You might say she likes to keep busy.

Vetere was recently interviewed by Fox Business about the role of women in technology, and as the former CTO of Estée Lauder Companies and leading IT professional, she is most definitely an expert in the matter. In this interview they touch upon various topics, such as user privacy, women in leadership, and her new book Grit & Grind: 10 Principles For Living An Extraordinary Life. One of the thorough lines of Grit & Grind is the importance of leaders and mentors for the next generation of employees, and when asked about how managers can help bring up the women who work for them, she responded "Put them in uncomfortable positions, give them assignments that are global, get them out there, mobile, and get them to, what I call, lean out."

We are all familiar with the famous words of Sheryl Sandberg: "Lean in." It's a book, a global community, and suddenly it has also become a big point of contention for women in our culture. What was once extolled as the answer to all of women's workplace troubles is now being questioned in a big way. Michelle Obama said it herself, "It's not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn't work all the time." This best-selling author, successful mother, licensed lawyer, former first-lady, and all-around incredible human being doesn't believe that leaning in is the answer for everyone. And it's not just controversies that are leading to this cultural change of heart; it's simply the fact that women are tired of being told how to behave.

Lean in is a way of instructing women how to smash their way into the business world using certain, prescribed behaviors to better succeed in a patriarchal corporate system slated against them. Now, I'm always down for some patriarchy smashing, but it's time to do it on our own terms. Marissa Orr, author of upcoming book, Lean Out, The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace, describes the old paradigm of thinking as "essentially [telling women] to behave more like men." This condescending idea that women somehow don't know how to behave themselves is tied to the "highly dysfunctional system" that has allowed forced women to take a back seat in business for years. But women like Orr and Vetere are beginning to change things, and "lean out" is going to be crucial in how the upcoming generation of women succeed in the corporate world.

So, what is leaning out all about? For Rhonda Vetere it is more than just a business strategy, it is a way of life, and it touches upon everything that she does. A huge part of lean out stems from Vetere's own history of taking risks, keeping mobile, and learning from every single experience. She understands what it's like to be the lone woman in a board room full of men, and she is deeply passionate about making sure women are not used as mere "tokens," simply to be slotted into one position or another. Rather she believes in empowering women throughout their careers by giving them opportunities to challenge themselves, driving performance and getting the results that they are truly capable of. As a mentor and leader to many, Vetere exemplifies the idea that courageous leadership is crucial to dynamic change and encouraging women to lean out.

She credits much of her personal philosophy and the strength of leaning out to the experiences she's had and the challenges she has faced while working abroad in locations such as Hong Kong, India, Singapore, and London, saying "If I had stayed in one spot, I wouldn't be the person, the professional, and the leader that I am today."

By going global and getting out of her own comfort zones, Vetere has grown immeasurably and she wants to encourage other women to do the same. "Lean in reminds me of just [going with the flow, but] in my head it's always been about getting stuff done, taking those risks, taking on hard assignments, and growing." Vetere was an early pioneer in women breaking out of traditional business roles; she understands that this is no longer the same generation that stays in one job for 20-30 years. From early on in her career she has continued to be unafraid in making big moves, allowing herself to learn and grow in a wide range of positions. Succeeding in business as a woman no longer has to mean acting like a man or restricting yourself with out-of-date ideologies.

"Lean in reminds me of just [going with the flow, but] in my head it's always been about getting stuff done, taking those risks, taking on hard assignments, and growing."

Rhonda VetereCourtesy of Studio 5800

Lean out means getting out of the "standard flow," utilizing the power within yourself to take risks and never stop learning. Women in the workplace are a force to be reckoned with, and it's time we start leaning out to face that challenge head on, wherever it may lead us. The strength is already there, and Vetere is helping women tap into it, at last: "You empower yourself every day. How you channel your energy is what is important."

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Influential Voices

Stop Asking if America is “Ready” for a Woman President

It's the question on everyone's tongues. It's what motivates every conversation about whether or not Liz Warren is "electable," every bit of hand-wringing that a woman just "can't win this year," and every joke about menstrual cycles and nuclear missiles. Is America ready for a woman president?


It's a question that would be laughable if it wasn't indicative of deeper problems and wielded like a weapon against our ambitions. Whether thinly-veiled misogyny or not (I'm not going to issue a blanket condemnation of everybody who's ever asked), it certainly has the same effect: to tell us "someday, but not yet." It's cold comfort when "someday" never seems to come.

What are the arguments? That a woman can't win? That the country would reject her authority? That the troops would refuse to take her orders? That congress would neuter the office? Just the other day, The New York Times ran yet another in a long series of op-eds from every major newspaper in America addressing this question. However, this one made a fascinating point, referencing yet another article on the topic in The Atlantic (examining the question during Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid), which cited a study by two Yale researchers who found that people were either the same or more likely to vote for a fictional male senator when told that he was ambitious; and yet, both men and women alike were less likely to vote for a woman when told that she was ambitious, even reacting with "feelings of moral outrage" including "contempt, anger, and disgust."

The question isn't whether a woman could be president, or whether a woman can be elected president – let's not forget that Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than the wildly unqualified man currently sitting in the oval office – it's whether or not it's appropriate for a woman to run for president, in a pre-conscious, visceral, gut-check way. In short, it's about misogyny. Not your neighbors' misogyny, that oft-cited imaginary scapegoat, but yours. Ours. Mine. The misogyny we've got embedded deeply in our brains from living in a society that doesn't value women, the overcoming of which is key for our own growth, well-being, and emotional health.

Why didn't we ever ask if America was ready for Trump?

That misogyny, too, is reinforced by every question asking people to validate a woman even seeking the position. Upfront, eo ipso, before considering anything of their merit or experience or thought, whether a woman should be president, that, if given the choice between a qualified woman and an unqualified man, the man wins (which, let's not forget, is what happened four years ago). To ask the question at all is to recognize the legitimacy of the difference in opinion, that this is a question about which reasonable people might disagree. In reality, it's a question that reason doesn't factor into at all. It's an emotional question provoking an emotional response: to whom belong the levers of power? It's also one we seem eager to dodge.

"Sure, I'd vote for a woman, but I don't think my neighbor would. I'd vote for a woman, but will South Carolina? Or Nebraska? Or the Dakotas?" At worst, it's a way to sort through the cognitive dissonance the question provokes in us – it's an obviously remarkable idea, seeing as we've never had a woman president – and at best, it's sincere surrender to our lesser angels, allowing misogyny to win by default. It starts with the assumption that a woman can't be president, and therefore we shouldn't nominate one, because she can't win. It's a utilitarian argument for excluding half of the country's population from eligibility for its highest office not even by virtue of some essential deficiency, but in submission to the will of a presumed minority of voters before a single vote has ever been cast. I don't know what else to call that but misogyny by other means.

We can, and must, do better than that. We can't call a woman's viability into question solely because she's a woman. To do so isn't to "think strategically," but to give ground before the race even starts. It's to hobble a candidate. It's to make sure voters see her, first and foremost, as a gendered object instead of a potential leader. I have immense respect for the refusal of women like Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and pioneers like Carol Mosley-Braun, going as far back as Victoria Woodhull, to accede to this narrative and stick to their arguments over the course of their respective campaigns, regardless of any policy differences with them. It's by women standing up and forcing the world to see us as people that we push through, not by letting them tell us where they think we belong.

One of the themes I come back to over and over again in my writing is women asserting independence from control and dignity in our lives. It's the dominant note in feminist writing going back decades, that plea for recognition not only of our political and civil rights, but our existence as moral agents as capable as any man in the same position, as deserving of respect, as deserving of being heard and taking our shot. What then do we make of the question "is America ready for a woman president?" Is America ready? Perhaps not. But perhaps "ready" isn't something that exists. Perhaps, in the truest fashion of human politics, it's impossible until it, suddenly, isn't, and thereafter seems inevitable.

I think, for example, of the powerful witness Barack Obama brought to the office of president, not simply by occupying it but by trying to be a voice speaking to America's cruel and racist history and its ongoing effects. By extension, then, I think there is very real, radical benefit to electing a chief executive who has herself been subject to patriarchal control in the way only women (and those who others identify as women) can experience.

I look at reproductive rights like abortion and birth control, and that is what I see: patriarchal control over bodies, something no single president has ever experienced. I think about wage equality; no US president has ever been penalized for their sex in their ability to provide for themselves and their families. I look at climate change, and I remember that wealth and power are inextricably bound to privilege, and that the rapacious hunger to extract value from the earth maps onto the exploitation women have been subject to for millennia.

That's the challenge of our day. We've watched, over the last decade, the radicalized right go from the fringes of ridicule to the halls of power. We've watched them spit at the truth and invent their own reality. All while some of our best leaders were told to wait their turn. Why, then, all this question of whether we're ready for something far simpler?

Why didn't we ever ask if America was ready for Trump?