Notes From Last Night: She Series - How To Lean In (A Session For Empowering Women)

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Lena Benjamin is a business mentor for the next generation of female business leaders.  Lena created the Empowering Women Summit (a Sheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In’ Partner) which is taking place on 17 October 2014 in Mayfair, London.  

Last night 40 passionately curious women from diverse backgrounds gathered at The Escape School to tackle questions such as “How do women succeed in the 21st Century?”.

After a quick icebreaker of “escapes anonymous”, where we introduced ourselves and shared what we hoped to gain from the evening, Lena Benjamin kicked off by sharing her own story.

While Lena was working for a global engineering company she decided she wanted to do something different with her career – something which would allow her to be who she is at her core.  This triggered a series of interesting events in her life, including launching an online bookstore and becoming the London Chair of Women in Management.

Lena explained that she had the advantage of having some strong role models growing up – her mother as a care giver and a entrepreneur, her aunt championing women’s issues at the House of Lords – all of which shaped her thinking as a child and young person.


Lena’s top tips

  • “Leaning In” means recognising that no matter what stage you’re at in your career, you HAVE A VOICE so honour it and have the confidence to put your point across when you feel you’re not being heard.
  • Early on in life, Lena recognised she needed to do something that allowed her to bring more of who she was into her work.  She believes that authenticity and passion lead to success.
  • Women now have the opportunity to step outside their predecessors’ choices e.g. getting married in their 20s, having 2.4 children and can instead ‘Do Something Different ‘(Escape the City’s strap line) so EMBRACE IT and push through the main stumbling block in our heads – FEAR.
  • It’s incredibly important to build a network because ideas from different people spark creativity and innovation.  Let technology/social media help you.

Lena played a clip of highlights from Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk, which inspired her 2013 bestseller “Lean In”.


Sheryl’s 3 main reasons for “why we have too few women leaders”

  • Women systematically underestimate their own abilities – they don’t negotiate for themselves and attribute their success to external factors (unlike men who attribute their success to themselves!)
  • Make your partner a real partner – housework and childcare needs to be split more equally between the sexes for womens’ careers to have any real chance of progressing.
  • Don’t leave before you leave!- From the moment a woman starts thinking about having a child, she doesn’t look for a promotion, take on a new project – she starts Leaning Back.  Don’t make decisions too far in advance, keep your foot on the gas pedal until you actually leave.

For the final part of the event the group came together to discuss the following important women’s issues:

Role Models

In discussing our role models and why we admired them, some initial examples given were the highly visible: Arianna Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, Anita Roddick, Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE (Lena’s aunt).  However, we soon agreed that role models didn’t need to come from the corporate sector alone with many citing home grown examples of family members we admired due to their authenticity, tenacity, priorities and values.


In discussing gender-specific challenges that we/our friends have experienced, we felt that many women care excessively about being liked and have a fear of putting off other women by acting “too male”.  We discussed various archetypes we’d encountered e.g. Aggressor/Facilitator/Passive (any of these familiar in your workplace?) as well as the Queen Bee Syndrome (women wanting to keep other women down).  We highlighted our overuse of negative language (woman= bossy vs. man=ambitious).  We acknowledged the structural challenge of being a pregnant woman in a competitive masculine environment.


A fascinating outcome of the discussion about our priorities and if they’d changed over the past 5-10 years, was that we’d identified happiness and health as the key priorities in our lives.  For some, the initial prestige and trappings of a corporate career meant little when we were still in the office at 4am especially if it eventually led to illness.  Conversely a concert pianist, who’d followed her passion, shared that her arts career brought with it the stress and dissatisfaction of not earning enough.  Clearly a balance was necessary! However, we agreed that meaning in our Monday to Friday was vital- it wasn’t enough to simply live for the weekend (no doubt why we ended up at The Escape School in the first place!)

Holding Back

In examining the ways in which we hold ourselves back, we discussed the Imposter Syndrome (not feeling good enough despite many accolades) and the pressure we put on ourselves if we’re going to speak in a male dominated meeting, to say something great!  We examined our ingrained core beliefs (e.g. I’m weak/flawed/unlovable) which act like invisible straitjackets.

What was clear from the evening was that tonight was just the BEGINNING of the conversation.   Ideas overflowed, connections with like-minded people were fostered and we left the venue with our curiosity piqued as to what future She Series events would bring – all in all, an evening well spent!



Follow Celia’s blog “Dared, Determined, Done!” about making big life and career changes.


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