Early Career

Is Sheryl Sandberg Correct That Women Just Aren’t Trying Hard Enough?

BusinesswomanIt’s not your imagination. Cracks in the glass ceiling are slow to spread.

Consider these statistics Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg cites in her new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead:

  • Only 17 of the world’s 195 heads of state are women
  • Women hold just 20 percent of the world’s parliament seats
  • Only 21 Fortune 500 CEOs are women
  • Women hold just 14 percent of executive officer positions and 17 percent of board seats
  • Just 18 percent of Congress is female

“The blunt truth,” Sandberg writes, “is that men still run the world.”

Discouraged yet?

There’s hope, Sandberg writes in the New York Times best-seller — she calls it a “sort of feminist manifesto” — that has refueled the debate over why more women aren’t in power and what can be done about it. Sandberg says that women suffer from a “leadership ambition gap” and suggests that they look to themselves for answers. “We can reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution,” she writes. “The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person.”

Women, she says, need to be more relentless about their careers. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes.

In other words, women who anticipate having families often pre-emptively bow out of the quest for the C-suite because they don’t think they can balance work and home.  “Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce,” Sandberg writes. “Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family.”

But Sandberg’s chief critic says she has it backward: women aren’t the problem; society is.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton, has written several major pieces criticizing Sandberg’s philosophy, including a July/August 2012 opinion piece in The Atlantic and a March 2013 book review in The New York Times. Slaughter’s 2012 piece, written before Sandberg’s book was released and based on Sandberg’s 2011 commencement speech at Barnard College and her viral 2010 TED talk, dismisses Sandberg’s philosophy as unrealistic, judgmental, and vaguely elitist. Her book review is less harsh — she praises Sandberg as “compassionate, funny, honest, and likable” — but is still pointed, arguing that Sandberg’s narrative “is what corporate America wants to hear.”

“For both the women who have made it and the men who work with them, it is cheaper and more comfortable to believe that what they need to do is simply urge younger women to be more like them, to think differently and negotiate more effectively, rather than make major changes in the way their companies work,” Slaughter writes in her New York Times piece.

Sandberg’s approach comes a little too close to blaming the victim, Slaughter argues. “Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach,” Slaughter writes in the Atlantic. “We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’ ”

Women struggling to make inroads in the halls of power need more than their bootstraps, Slaughter argues. “It is time for women in leadership positions to recognize that although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that ‘having it all’ is, more than anything, a function of personal determination,” she writes.

For Slaughter, the gender gap is an institutional problem, and one that must be addressed on institutional levels. “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too),” she writes. “I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Slaughter suggests wholesale changes in the way we view work and family life, including eliminating the American “time macho” culture where working around the clock is seen as a virtue. Slaughter says work schedules should more closely match those of schools, which would make it easier to juggle multiple roles. Pauses during a career, such as taking a few years off for children or to care for an aging parent, should not be momentum-destroyers from which the career never recovers.

“Young women might be much more willing to lean in if they saw better models and possibilities of fitting work and life together: ways of slowing down for a while but still staying on a long-term promotion track; of getting work done on their own time rather than according to a fixed schedule; of being affirmed daily in their roles both as parents and as professionals,” she writes in the Times.

And, she says, workplaces should be more flexible about working from home. (That’s a debate another powerful woman, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, reopened in February when she banned company employees from working from home. Critics said Mayer, as a working mother, should have been more sensitive to questions of work-life balance. Her defenders, however, said that the ban would have been less controversial coming from a man.)

Sandberg and Slaughter aren’t the only ones weighing in on the issue, of course. A third school of thought, voiced by those such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Huffington Post writer Joan Williams, among others, is that both messages need to be heard: Women should start asking for what they want, yes, but the system needs to change, too.

“Young women, listen to Sheryl Sandberg. Corporations, listen to Anne-Marie Slaughter,” writes Williams, a Hastings, Calif., law professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law. “And let’s bring men into the conversation. Until men feel they have more freedom to buck the ideal-worker norm, ladies, nothing’s going to change.”

Sandberg needs two versions of her book, Kristof writes in a January 2013 column: “One marketed to young women would encourage them to be more assertive. One marketed to men (and women already in leadership) would emphasize the need for structural changes to accommodate women and families.”

Those changes should include a more hospitable attitude toward part-time workers, writes another commentator, Carey Goldberg of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. “What we really need is the anti-Sheryl-Sandberg: A corporate leader who models the understanding that working parents carry double responsibilities. That they deserve support for their choices rather than urgings to try harder when the problem isn’t effort, it’s the limited time in the day,” Goldberg writes on Cognoscenti, the opinion section of the station’s website.

Social biases create other barriers.

“We all have to look out for the blind spots we have about how we think of women and men as well as the blind spots we have about how we think of leadership,” writes Anne Weisberg, author and chief strategy officer for FutureWork Institute, in the article “Look Out Before You Lean In.” “Only when we are all aware of both these biases will women be able to truly lean in without the fear of falling over.”

Gender equity isn’t just an issue of fairness. It also boosts performance. In “Look Out Before You Lean In,” Weisberg (slated to speak at Forte Foundation’s MBA Women’s Leadership Conference held in New York City) cites statistics from the World Economic Forum, McKinsey, and others that:

  • Countries with smaller gender gaps have more competitive economies
  • Companies with more women in senior management post better performance
  • Venture-backed companies with female founders are more likely to be profitable
  • Hedge-fund portfolios with 50 percent women managers have higher returns

Or, as Kristof writes, “Lehman Brothers might still be around today if it were Lehman Brothers & Sisters.”

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