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Diggin' in to 'Lean In'

Dr. Lynda Szymanski checks out the books in a Women’s History Month display at Red Wing Public Library. She will lead the “Lean In” discussion March 31 at the Goodhue County History Center. (Photo by Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor)

By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

Has the number of companies run by women grown any?

How critical is it for women to support each other?

Do women hold themselves back in their careers?

Why aren’t more women in leadership positions?

Questions about women and leadership are plentiful. But answers still are in short supply.

Three Red Wing organizations are jointly sponsoring a community conversation addressing those and other questions raised in “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” the best seller by Sheryl Sandberg.

“Red Wing Lean In,” a Women’s History Month event, will be at 7 p.m. March 31 at the Goodhue County History Center. A reception will start at 6:30 p.m.

The League of Women Voters of Red Wing, the Red Wing Public Library and the Goodhue County Historical Society are bringing together a panel of women to start the discussion:

•Jane Donkers, who has ties to both education and business in Red Wing

•Heidi Jones, an elected official — also in education — and stay-at-home parent

•Rebecca Taylor, an adult college student

•Megan Ramaker, a young professional and new mother

•Pam Gorman, a business executive

“The League was having conversations about women in leadership,” LWV co-president Colleen Clark said, pointing to the 400-plus women who signed up for the recent Habitat for Humanity Women Build.

“We looked at all the energy happening in Red Wing,” she said, and began exploring ways to create a conversation that would engage women of all ages and socio-economic groups. “The Women Build did that. It got teams together.”

Sandberg’s “Lean In” book created a buzz nationwide after it was published in 2013, Clark said.

Controversial among women as well as men, it sparked intense discussion about a topic that had lost steam in recent years.

Clark turned to Dr. Lynda Szymanski of Red Wing, a professor of psychology who has been with St. Catherine University in St. Paul for 16 years.

“All of my research has focused on women,” said Szymanski, who will moderate the “Lean In” panel discussion. Among topics her studies addressed was the importance of social support.

“When women get support from other women in their lives, it helps them cope with stressors in a unique way,” her studies found. “We really need to support each other in the choices we make that are related to leadership,” Szymanski said.

Sandberg’s book was on her list of material to read, she said, but “I didn’t think I would like the book.”

Based on what she had read about it, Szymanski said, “I felt that she blamed women for not being more in leadership positions.”

Despite that skepticism, “I found what she had to say compelling. She really made me think differently about the gender gap in leadership.”

The book became “food for discussion” in the upcoming community conversation, Szymanski said, stressing that women do not have to read the book in advance to participate.

Sandberg addresses how women contribute to the gap in leadership. In her own studies Szymanski said she focused on external factors, while Sandberg shifts that focus to what women do.

“We don’t ‘lean in’ at work,” Szymanski explained. “We sit at the periphery at the table.”

She acknowledged that women have valid reasons for not leaning in — another discussion point.

But the result is that fewer than 20 percent of women in the work world are in leadership positions, even though more than half of college graduates today are women.

In the corporate world, only 14 percent of executive officers and 17 percent of board members are women. Women comprise only 18 percent of elected congressional officials.

“There is no reason women can’t lead,” Szymanski said. “But we’re not.”

The purpose of the community conversation is not to place blame, she said, but to get people thinking about what they can do. It could mean giving support to women who choose to become leaders, she said, or just recognizing the importance of having women in leadership roles.

Members of the panel were given copies of the book to read, and copies are available at the library for anyone who wants to read “Lean In” ahead of time.

Audience participation will be invited throughout the discussion, and the League hopes that women will be encouraged to continue the conversation going forward, Clark said.

If you go …

Who: Panel of Red Wing women

What: Community conversation on women in leadership

When: 7 p.m. March 31

Where: Goodhue County History Center, 1166 Oak St.

Cost: Free