Lean in Moments: Jenny Choi

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This summer, I am working as an international relations intern at Chile’s Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (SERNAM or National Women’s Service). Chile is a beautiful country that offers beaches, volcanoes, deserts, and mountains all in one long bus ride. But what has made my stay here truly exhilarating is the chance to observe the activity of a bustling country right on the cusp of full-fledged development. I’ve been eagerly jotting down everything I notice (from actual problems like the prevalence of vagabond dogs on the streets of Santiago to minor details like how few people jay-walk here) in the hopes that if I get a chance to revisit Chile in the future, I will be able to look back and point out the differences.

The work itself also provides a look into Chile’s energy-ridden atmosphere around modernization and liberalization. My project is to review the Chilean reports to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women from 1994 to 2012 and prepare a comparative report. Through my first two weeks (and after perhaps too many minutes of scratching my head over the meaning of SAT-level Spanish vocabulary initially), I have been able to gather that women’s rights, although clearly overshadowed by more spotlighted issues like education and constitutional reform right now, is indeed going through an exciting time as well.

In the women’s discourse in Chile, we see the classic tug-of-war between a Government cautious of change and the comparatively more radical People. Much of the winning Chilean law projects on the subject of women have been sold to legislators as protecting the institution of the family or being beneficial for children instead of as a change to the stereotypes and societal expectations as to how a woman should behave. Meanwhile, we see government services like SERNAM (backed with the power of the executive branch) responding more directly to the pressure from the people, pushing through at full speed with programs that do not require the approval of the legislature, such as career-oriented support systems and gender-related material in schools curriculum and workplace development centers.

Analyzing these patterns, watching massive (and frequent) student rallies for better education, and seeing the protest graffiti all over the city (including the historic church at which I go to mass) have certainly added up to an exciting and deeply thought-provoking study on humans, the world, and myself in general. So aside from seats I have taken at the table and the projects I have started at work, I would like to say that my true “Lean In” experience has been the passive yet focused and organized observation of all the chaos around me.

Sheryl Sandberg’s version of leaning in is quite literal; throughout the book, she urges her readers to take a seat at the table, negotiate hard, and speak up. While all these are certainly essential steps for women to take in this age, I also believe that many women forget to lean in while they are leaning in. That is to say, in the chaos of performing the actions of leaning in as Sandberg puts forward in her book, many women (and men!) forget to lean in to the world in which they live and press their ears against the wall. As a result, we soon lose sight of the bigger picture and the community-oriented mindset as we pour all our energy into overcoming battles within the self.

Leadership is indeed – and I quote our dear friend Merriam Webster here – “the office or position of a leader” or “the capacity to lead.” However, we cannot forget that the higher we are on the pyramid, the more comprehensive the view. If we want to emerge as true leaders, we should “lean in” not only in terms of speaking up at meetings; we can and should also “lean in” by taking a step back to hear, see, smell, and feel the world in which we live, so as maintain a genuine and grounded perspective on the communities we aspire to lead.

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