A rollicking discussion of Sheryl Sandberg’s white-hot new book, “Lean In,” led to expected outcomes earlier this month: Great professional connections, robust laughter, tough questions and diverse answers, and a promise to push the conversation forward.

But the gathering of about 100 women of all ages and industries at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis last week led also to a surprising new buzz-phrase: Lean on.

As we talk among ourselves and, I hope, with our male colleagues about the importance of women in leadership, we have another question to ponder.

How do we rate on the “lean-on” meter? In other words, how good are we at mentoring younger women? There’s a diversity of opinions about that, too.

The informal and inclusive book club was the brainstorm of master people-connector Mary Angela Baker, director of St. Catherine University’s Leadership Institute. Baker attended a women’s leadership conference in March where everybody was talking about Sandberg’s book, in which the COO at Facebook encourages women to confidently take their place at the table and (bless her) calls “having it all” what it is — a myth.

(Along those lines, Sandberg, named one of Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, recounts a funny story about taking her kids on a plane to a business conference and discovering onboard that they both had head lice.)

But her book’s message is serious, and backed up by troubling research: Women enjoy nowhere near equal representation in positions of leadership in government, industry or on boards of directors which make key decisions affecting them.

The 2012 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, for example, found that while women control 73 percent of U.S. household spending decisions, they hold only 14.5 percent of the board seats of Minnesota’s top 100 public companies. The number has remained stagnant for five years.

What’s holding us back? The discussion last week offered provocative questions to move us closer to an answer. Why is “ambitious” a dirty word in regard to women? How do we approach risk-taking? Who is better at feedback, men or women? Why don’t we ask for what we want? And my favorite, “Why are we still talking about this?”

It was a great event, but I left with lean-on stuck in my head. Most women have heard that we’re reluctant to help other women up the ladder or, worse, we’re hostile to the idea. Is it true?

Some say yes. One participant expressed disappointment “at the lack of support from other women we all felt throughout our careers.” Another contended that we need “honest male sponsors and mentors to help us know and understand the many unwritten rules,” a suggestion, perhaps, that our gender isn’t quite up for the challenge.

But women as enemies is largely untrue, said Sarah Rand, an assistant professor in the department of business administration at St. Kate’s and doctoral student at the University of Minnesota studying women’s leadership development. She points to a recent study showing that 65 percent of women report helping other women, compared to 56 percent of men.

Rand, who said male and female mentors are essential, notes the chicken-or-egg challenge here. Women are more likely to advance having a mentor, but women mentors tend to not be as high up in the ranks to help them advance.

“We do step up,” Rand said, “but there’s still more to do.”

Katherine Curran, an organizational consultant and one of the moderators, thinks the bad rap comes from systemic discrimination “that pits women against other women. There’s the perception that there isn’t very much power, or promotions, available, so if you get one you may be taking mine. Then we’re competitors, not collaborators.”

But Curran, founder of powerandleadership.com, sees such thinking waning as society changes and women become more comfortable with their own self-worth. “No one else,” she said, “can take something that’s truly yours.”

Marjorie Mathison Hance, founder of the Twin Cities Women’s Council, which provides networking opportunities, agrees. “Many women are outstanding mentors and are very conscious about reaching down and helping younger women develop,” she said. She surmises that the lack of willingness to mentor was “more true” decades ago, when women were rising in the ranks “and didn’t want to be affiliated with women’s issues.”

But any reluctance to mentor today is due most likely to time constraints that affect men as much as women, she said. Everybody’s crunched by having to do more with less. “The biggest challenge,” she said, “is ‘Can I afford the time to do it?’ ”

She, Curran and Rand all hope that more women will say, yes, absolutely lean on me. And younger women: You need to ask.

“Women do particularly need female mentors because they help them understand barriers, inspire them, encourage them,” Rand said. “They’ve gone through the obstacles.”

Besides, mentoring offers completely selfish joy. I have three examples.

Theresa Malloy interviewed me six years ago as part of her Minnetonka High School Writing Center. She graduates in May with a journalism degree from the University of St. Thomas and already has a full-time job as a community editor for the Sun Newspapers. We had coffee last week and she’s glowing with the opportunity.

Cassie Limpert Bonstrom joined the Star Tribune’s Minnesota Youth News team in 1999, as a ninth-grader. A graduate of Edina High School and St. Olaf, she worked as an intern at “60 Minutes,” morning anchor in Duluth, assignment editor at WCCO-TV and now at KARE-11. I celebrated at her wedding and see her often.

Maddie Szempruch spent 12 weeks in the newsroom as part of School District 196’s Mentor Program. A graduate of Eastview High School, she’s a freshman at St. Thomas, involved in ROTC, Spanish and journalism. After a recent trip to India, where she witnessed abject poverty, she realized it was her responsibility to document diverse cultures and challenges “to improve the situation of those who have fewer resources than I do.”

I’d love to tell you my mentoring is what inspired these three amazing young women, but that would be what we call hyperbole. My greatest contribution was recognizing raw talent, then ducking low to allow it to fly past me.

And all I feel is pride.

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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