I just started reading Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s new political commentary/memior/feminist manifesto Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. And by started, I mean I read the introduction. But it’s already got me thinking and eager to delve into the rest of the book. So that’s a good thing.
Unlike a lot of the conversation out there, Sandberg focuses less on the institutional barriers out there (damn men keeping us down! rarrrr!) and more on the internal barriers that prevent women from rising to the top. As a psychologist and someone with lots of internal barriers, this really resonates with me. Or at least I think it will, once I read more.
Sandberg points to some of the statistics out there — like the fact that only 14% of business executives are women and just over 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. What’s most interesting about these numbers is that they start out looking much different. Entry-level business jobs are pretty evenly dispersed among men and women. But as time marches on, women fail to climb the ladder as quickly as men. Or they jump off.
As I was thinking about this, I recognized that there are a myriad of factors contributing to it. There’s the self-confidence and self-determination that are required to move ahead — qualities that are not always made priority in raising girls and women. There’s the fact that new motherhood often occurs at a pivotal point in the career trajectory, leaving many women who try to balance multiple roles in the dust.
But there’s also something else. And that’s the fact that as women, we’re acculturated to make other people happy. I don’t want to paint the female sex with such broad strokes, but I feel pretty safe in stating that most women don’t like to be the bad guy. We are often raised to consider the needs and wants of others, and, in some cases, to be a primary caretaker of those needs and wants. We are taught to keep things tidy and in order. We are taught to make others feel gooooood about themselves. In fact, not doing so can have damaging effects on our careers, relationships, and sense of self, says some research.
I’m going to even go out on a limb here and say that it’s not just a matter of acculturation and gender stereotyping, but maybe… even… evolutionary biology? Since the dawn of (wo)man, we have been relied upon to keep families and communities together. We do this in multiple more modern ways — organizing playdates, preparing meals, and championing safer communities — but the fact remains that part of our biological legacy is in fostering connection. It’s that connection that has kept our world thriving, in my humble opinion.
Business isn’t necessarily anti-community, but it requires some mess-making. It requires being willing to rock the boat and upset Dave in accounts. It sometimes requires laying people off and doing arguably ruthless things to move a company ahead. Okay, so maybe they’re not ruthless things. Perhaps just unpopular. But still.
I’m not for a moment arguing that women are not designed to get ahead in business. Rather, I would argue that: women have to recognize and consider thoughtfully their perhaps instinctual nature. I believe whole-heartedly that women have the capacity to make tough, unpopular decisions. I just think that it’s worth considering that it may be tough, given our biology and acculturation. Women do tough stuff all the time (hello, childbirth!), so I have no doubt that we can (and do, all the time!) this.
The other factor is that perhaps it’s not that women’s psyches struggle to mesh with business, but that business is somehow fundamentally flawed in its philosophy. If we had more women in leadership positions, I venture to say that the nature of business would change dramatically. Companies — and the world — might be run more from a place of cooperation than competition. You know how this line of thinking goes — less war, less famine, more unicorns dancing in the skies. But I think it’s true. Women have an important place at the table — the dinner one and the conference one.
I’ll have to give this all some more thought. And getting past the introduction of Sandberg’s book might be wise too. But for now, I have a load of laundry to finish and 46 emails to read.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced the impact of your sex on your work or career?