Why there are too few women leaders

In 2010, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, did a TED talk on why there are so few women in C-level positions (e.g. CEO, CFO, etc).  She begins with the statement that “women are not making it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world.”  Studies show that out of 190 heads of state, only 9 are women. In parliament, 13% are women.  In the corporate sector, 15%.  In the non-profit sector, 20%.  According to Sandberg, these statistics have not changed since 2002, and are only going down.

Before you read on thinking – great, another so-called “feminist” post where the source of all world problems are blamed on men – hold on.  Sandberg acknowledges that women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment, but she digs even deeper to understand the root reasons and complexities behind this issue.  Her arguments (and 3 take-away points – summarized below) are consequently insightful, surprising, and for me, deeply resonating:

1. Sit at the table.  At an executive meeting, Sandberg was surprised that other women at C-level positions opted to sit at the side tables, rather than the main one.  The reason? Sandberg says that “women systematically underestimate their own abilities”.   While men tend to attribute success internally, women attribute success to external factors (e.g. luck; someone helped them; being in the right place at the right time).  This really rings true for me.  Of the many amazing, talented, and capable women I know, it is the strongest, smartest and most dedicated who constantly doubt themselves and question their abilities.  (That is not to say that men do not feel this self-doubt; only that my women friends talk about it more).  Perhaps a further complicating factor is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men, but negatively correlated for women.  In other words, as a woman, the more successful you are, the less likeable you become.  Words like “aggressive” and “cut-throat” start to creep in the picture.  (Google “Howard and Heidi study”). Sandberg’s message, I think is this:

As women, if we don’t believe in, understand, or feel like we deserve our own success, who will?  A statistic that perhaps supports this argument is that while 57% of men negotiate their first salary in the workforce, only 7% of women do.  (I certainly did not have the nerve – or rather – felt like I had the right – to negotiate my salary in my first job).

2. Make your partner a real partner.  Sandberg says we have made a lot more progress in the workplace than at home. When a woman and man work full-time and have a child, the woman does 2 times the housework, and 3 times the childcare.  Sandberg asks, who do you think drops out when someone needs to be home more?  I know one stay-at-home dad. When out in the world, he says people tell him all the time what an awesome dad he is.  Yes – he is an awesome dad – but how many awesome moms are given the same compliment on a regular basis? On the other hand, research shows [pg. 114] that “when male employees take a leave of absence or just leave work early to care for a sick child, they can face negative consequences that range from being teased, to reducing lower performance ratings, to reducing their chances for a raise or promotion”.

3. Don’t leave before you leave.  Sandberg says that as soon as women start thinking about having a child, they wonder how they will make room for that child in their incredibly busy lives.  Subconsciously, they start quietly leaning back.  They don’t raise their hand as much as they used to.  They don’t reach for the opportunities as much as they would have.  Sandberg offers an equation:

[X months of leaning back] + [9 months for pregnancy] + [6 to 12 months of maternity leave] = At least 2 years of lost opportunities

The result?  “Your job better be really good when you come back because its hard to leave that kid at home.  Your job better be challenging, it needs to be rewarding, you need to feel like you’re making a difference…  If 2 years ago, you didn’t take a promotion and some guy next to you did… if 3 years ago, you stopped reaching for opportunities, you’re gonna be bored…. You should have kept your foot on the gas pedal.”  Her message?  Don’t make decisions too far in advance – particularly ones you’re not even conscious you are making.

So, what can we learn from this? What is the problem here and how can we fix it?  For me, the message is this.

We (women) need to shift how we think about our own abilities and potential –  addressing our internal barriers is already half the battle. We play a huge part in the solution towards addressing the gender equality gap.

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