Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has struck a chord in both men and women with her new best seller, Lean In. She has drawn attention to the unsettling ratio of women to men in leadership roles in corporations and government and says of the feminist movement, “It’s time to face the fact that our revolution has stalled.” Her message to women, focus on your careers. Put yourselves next to men on the track to success and lean in to leadership.
In her book, Sandberg uses personal anecdotes from her career as a prominent business executive to share real experiences of gender inequality in the work place. In an authentic voice, she talks about her own successes, struggles, and insecurities and uses the wisdom she’s gained from these experiences to offer compelling solutions. The topics she covers in her book encourage consideration and discussion far beyond its pages. In fact, Lean In seems to be a launching point for a greater movement now underway on Facebook and from her organization’s website, www.leanin.org .
The hard data Sandberg provides in her book confirms that more women than men are graduating from college and advancing on to higher education. Based on these statistics, women should hold at least an equal number of the leadership roles in the workplace, not to mention an equal position on the pay scale. Unfortunately, the progress made by women in education has not translated this way.
Sandberg offers several explanations. One is the idea that men are more confident and better equipped from encouragement and advice they receive as children to commit to their careers, wield authority, and fight for leadership positions. Women are being encouraged to enter the workforce, but instead of being taught to take risks and speak up the way boys are, they are expected to be polite, obey the rules, and follow the male lead. This unintentional but long engrained gender bias has lead to what Sandberg calls, the leadership ambition gap. To close this gap, Sandberg suggests the next generation of women be encouraged and educated to speak up, make their presence known, and be prominent voices in school and in the workplace. By doing this, educators and employers can build confidence in women from a young age and men will grow up seeing them as equal participants and colleagues along the way.
Another explanation Sandberg has for the small percentage of women at the top, is women’s subconscious tendency to hold themselves back. Because of the gender bias they are subject to as children, they lack the confidence and assurance men bring to the workplace and are not negotiating for themselves the way men are. They keep themselves on the sidelines instead of assuming the right to play the game. They are not “sitting at the table” but off to the side observing instead of participating. This has women undermining their own ability and worth. They are left feeling overlooked and less equipped for jobs they are perfectly, if not overly, qualified for. This self induced diminishment leaves women less likely to look for advancement to the ranks of leadership and helps explain their lack of presence there alongside men. A man’s confidence at his job does not make him better at it, but it does instill more trust in his ability and he will gain more recognition for the work he is doing. Because of this, he will ascend the corporate ladder or, the corporate jungle gym as Sandberg calls it, more quickly and effectively.
Unfortunately, it will take more than women speaking out and assuming the same confidence as men to earn them equal opportunity for advancement. Sandberg points out that, when a woman does act more like a man in these scenarios, she risks being seen as aggressive or overly ambitious and this results in her being identified by her colleagues as unlikeable. Being unlikeable can be as detrimental to upward mobility as being inept at the job. If women don’t speak up they go un-noticed, but when they do, both male and female co-workers are quick to find fault in their character and their working relationships and bad mouth them to bosses and other coworkers. Both men and women should hold themselves accountable by asking, when offended by something a woman says or an action she takes, if they would be equally offended of that action by a man. Studies show they would not. Even women hold women to these double standards and it is not helping their cause.
Another way Sandberg says women take themselves out of the leadership running, is by leaving before they leave. What Sandberg means by this, is that women tend forgo opportunity for advancement because of their desire to have a family in the future. A woman will set her ambition up against her future family and make decisions about promotions and opportunities around a future where, she assumes, she can’t have both. She feels she must choose between family and career years before she is actually faced with the choice point. Men are not being faced with this internal struggle. Statistics show that women, even when working full time, take on the majority of the household responsibilities, including child care. This means that the majority of men are never confronted with having to choose between work and family. However, where women are being told to lean in in the work place, Sandberg encourages men to lean in at home. While women hold themselves back at work for sake of the home, gender stereotypes have men holding themselves back in the home for the sake of their work. Sandberg talks about how both men and women need to speak up and encourage their employers to structure the workplace around men and women who want to have stable home lives and relationships with their children. Parents who are fortunate enough to work in these environments tend to have stronger bonds with their families and are happier employees. Another benefit of this structure, would allow both men and women to retain their career ambitions and also be present in their lives with their families and make it possible for their spouses to strive for the same. It will take both men and women leaning in and speaking up to make changes in this direction.
It makes sense that a better sense of diversity and a more well-rounded collection of creativity and ideas would benefit everyone. The issues women care about and the perspectives they bring to the table are often very different from those of men. With unequal numbers of women facing men at the proverbial table, women’s voices and views are not being heard and this is as much a disservice to men and business as it is to women. Both men and women need to encourage women to sit at the table and speak up in order to benefit from their unique perspectives.
Women can’t do this work alone. Women need support from men at home as well as from their colleagues, managers, mentors, and advisors. This fight is not just about equal pay and equal treatment. It is also about business and society having the opportunity to hear equal voices. Small changes can lead to big difference and the first step is having and changing the conversation; of looking at gender issues instead of letting them pass our consciousness and acknowledging their presence and importance. Sandberg says, “Talking can transform minds, which can transform behaviors, which can transform institutions.” Discussion is a step we can begin taking today. We can also start today by encouraging our little girls to be leaders now, from a young age instead of allowing them to follow the boys and conform to their thoughts and opinions. Teach girls that their voices are valuable and worth hearing. We should all be aware that we are still perpetuating gender stereotypes and make an effort to change them. As Sheryl Sandberg puts it, “We cannot change what we are unaware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”