A back room full of attractive, driven people got together Monday night over platters of roasted cauliflower and beer-braised chicken for an “Essay Club” (less commitment than a book club) about “Women in Charge.” I can’t remember the last time I had a chance to talk at length with smart people about one focused topic, and it was valuable time (reading the assigned essays in advance, the conversation itself, and the thoughts I keep coming back to in the wake of it).

At my end of the table, we had to keeping calling ourselves back to the fact that this is who we are in the conversation: three women with advanced degrees joined by two men, all of us having founded startups and led companies, all of us living in New York City. Life does not suck for us — not even a little bit — when it comes to what and how we’re doing professionally right this moment.

And yet, we worry about why more women aren’t in charge, who is in charge and how to get more of us in those roles. We wonder how we can duck any curveballs about to be lobbied our way in the workplace.

From the excerpt of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, we centered our chat around this quote:

When a woman excels at her job, both men and women will comment that she is accomplishing a lot but is ‘not as well liked by her peers.’ She is probably also ‘too aggressive,’ ‘not a team player,’ ‘a bit political’; she ‘can’t be trusted’ or is ‘difficult.’ Those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.

One lady at the table said when she got her first taste of being “less popular” in response to being assertive in a mostly-male work setting, she felt herself pull back and disengage. It wasn’t a feeling she’d had during college, or in predominantly female or evenly balanced work settings. For her, the feeling was unique to working in a male-dominated workplace. We wondered, then, what happens for (or to) women between college and entering the workforce?

I took her experience as a reminder to both seek out and offer more mentorship. Women need external mentorship and internal champions (of both sexes) whenever possible. To that point, here’s something excellent I read today on the “Five Best Ways to Use a Mentor.”

From the Sandra Tsing Loh piece, “I Choose My Choice,” I called out this bombshell:

The typical package of family-friendly benefits delivered by the state creates incentives that essentially reinforce the devaluations of motherhood prompted by the capitalist ethos and feminist expectations." And earlier, "The society that has emerged, in which equality between men and women supersedes equality between social classes, may therefore be seen as 'the triumph of feminism over socialism.'

We noodled over paid time off policies and the current argument about women “having it all” with the “all” in the offending sentence being “work and children.” There are implications that somehow women who work are contributing something more valuable than women who choose to stay home with their children, or that not wanting to have children means not really wanting to have it all.

One gentleman feels he has a lot of work he’d like to do / projects he might want to explore before thinking about having kids. The feeling surprised him, because he’d thought that he might want to focus more time on the kids part of his equation after turning 30.

This is probably the only part of being a woman that I resent on principle. The other gentleman at our table didn’t understand why I couldn’t just take another ten years to focus on my career if that’s what I wanted. Well, let me break it down for ya.

*If I had another 10 years to focus exclusively on work projects and not on thinking about the huge decisions of choosing life partners and having children, who knows what sorts of next businesses I might want to launch or other careers I might want to pursue? Biologically, I can't just not think about these things for another 10 years if I want to have children.

And what if I don’t know yet if I want to stay home with my kids or be a senior executive? Yikes. Apparently, I need to figure all of that out before I can even find a husband.

Most women in their 30s who aspire to the c-suite or who want to build or join a startup — they’re at a crucial point in their professional development where taking a significant amount of time away from the workplace could set them back in a way they can't recover from.

No matter your gender, to be at the top of whatever you’re doing, you generally have to log more hours and be more visible than anyone else on your team. Working 80-hour weeks and being the last one out at night flies in the face of American society’s definition of being a great mother.

Over the course of our conversation, we also discussed race, class and how professional women navigate traditional gender roles in romantic relationships. One woman at the table said something I thought was wonderful and brilliant: one example of “trickle-down feminism” is the line from Helen Gurley Brown to Jane Pratt to Tavi Gevinson.

We agreed that not every woman at the top has to be a Sheryl Sandberg. But having more women in leadership roles will necessarily make things better not just for women but for everyone.

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* This is a theoretical resentment. I don’t feel crushing pressure to “have it all,” because I’m lucky to have already done many of the things I’ve wanted to do professionally. I want everyone to someday feel like they can say the same about their own careers, regardless of gender.

Photo credit: Chris Gold on Flickr