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Posts Tagged ‘Sheryl Sandberg’

The Feminine Mystique is 50 years old; do you know where your equality is?

Here’s a hint: if you’re a woman living in America, it’s still pretty far out of reach. Because for as far as women have come in the ol’ US of A, the fact is that the state of affairs here–compared to most of the rest of the world, is pretty freaking abysmal. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in an op-ed entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled” in Sunday’s NYT,

Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s work or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total workforce was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers should be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the FMLA turned out to be the inadequate end.

Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.

As I likely do not need to tell you, the number of hours worked expected from the average worker during the average workweek has ticked steadily up in recent years, making the idea of two full-time employees trying to raise a child while maintaining each of their careers near impossible.  So someone steps down. Men are generally paid more than women–so guess which one tends to do the stepping down? And in fact, the more hours a man works, the more likely it is his female partner will quit her job. (And interestingly, married dads whose wives don’t work full time get paid more. Grrr.)

I have an extremely talented, very driven friend who works in New York, in a highly competitive, fast-evolving field. She is passionate about her work, and fiercely devoted to keeping her skills current. Her husband makes more money than her, and his job offers benefits. They’re thinking of having a baby. Her current boss won’t pay for leave–and, she’s been feeling pretty stagnant in her position. Up until recently, she’d been looking for a new job. But now, she’s thinking, well, maybe I’ll just take some time off when we have the baby. Child care is so expensive anyway. It’ll put her at a disadvantage later, but she doesn’t see much of a choice. She’s stopped looking for something new–despite the fact that she has not, as of yet, stopped taking the pill.

Sheryl Sandberg would call this a classic case of “leaning out”–taking oneself out of the game before it’s necessary in anticipation of work-life issues–and suggest that this friend of mine rethink her strategy, “lean in” instead. Even this friend of mine looks at is as a personal choice. But the thing is, in cases like this, the personal is, in fact, political.

Going back to Coontz’s piece:

The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their ‘decision-making process,’ it became clear that most had made the ‘choice’ to quit work only as a last resort–when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.

Every time we buy into that idea — that what’s going on with us has only to do with us — the movement stalls just a little bit more. It’s been fifty years since The Feminine Mystique… and twenty since the Family and Medical Leave Act. In order for things to change, we have to realize that what we are up against is bigger than the particular circumstances of our own lives.

Just as the miserable, Valium-popping suburban wives of Friedan’s day might have looked around at their gleaming linoleum and state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and said, but I chose this, we too can look at everything as a personal choice. Or we can step back, take a broader look, and realize that while, yes, perhaps we did “lean out”–taking a lesser job in a lesser place because our husband made the big bucks, or taking some time off work with the baby because it “made more sense” even though, in an ideal world, we’d like to work, too–a huge, invisible (and not so invisible) part of why we “decided” to lean out is systemic. It’s cultural and it’s structural and it’s policy-determined and it is, in fact, political.

The graphic that ran with Coontz’s story is a color-coded world map that shows which countries have paid maternity leave, by weeks provided. Those in the “none” category included Palau, Papau New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga, Suriname, and the United States. Aren’t we better than this?

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I think it’s time to send the Mommy Wars off to bed once and for all.

Best-selling novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan would definitely agree.  Kogan was one of the featured break-out speakers at last week’s Sun Valley Writers Conference and her talk on the myth of the mommy wars provided food for both thought and the soul.

Kogan, a former photojournalist who spent her twenties covering international war zones, is the author of Shutterbabe, a memoir she wrote after the birth of her first child, and The Red Book, a New York Times bestseller that catches up with four Harvard roommates as they struggle, twenty years later, with the challenges of adult life.  She told a rapt audience that the media-created war that, again and again, pits women against each other is nothing but a diversion that keeps us from the real work of changing a broken system:

Once women were seen pitted thus–working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers–instead of us discussing why we have no infrastructure for working families — the simple us versus them becomes insidiously ingrained.

The us-versus-them business: Kogan was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned.  But what was encouraging to me was the way the women in the audience, ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty-plus, grabbed her message and got riled up, ready to join the right kind of fight.

Kogan traced the origins of the Mommy Wars back to that ridiculous cookie contest between Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton. (Call it the cookie wars.  Check Family Circle and you’ll see they’re still going on.).  She provided slides of the recent media flashpoints, stuff we’ve written about, here and here:  “Are you Mom Enough”, the recent Time Magazine cover story on attachment parenting, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in “The Atlantic”, which set the bar so high for having it all, Kogan said, as to render the term meaningless.  The resulting brouhaha also led to a fake dust-up between Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. What’s interesting, Kogan said, is that these images, these poster-moms, don’t look like any women she knows.

Most women are worried about how they can afford to buy that dinner; what if their husband gets sick; if the nanny makes $750/week, how can I afford to work?  What vacation?  AND being judged constantly.  By framing this as a war, the media sets up the idea that one side must win.  And that diverts the attention from the real issue through the juxtaposition of mommy plus war — without caveats.

Kogan provided charts and stats, comparing the support the U.S. offers working mothers versus the policies in other countries such as France or Sweden.  You can guess where the U.S. fell in most of those measures:  Off the charts, actually, and not in a good way (as we too found when we researched our book.)  Add in crappy vacation policies (versus France, she said, where five weeks’ vacation is the norm) and corporate work expectations that can top out at eighty hour work weeks.  And while the cost of child care have gone up, salaries have stagnated.

Read and weep.

What we need, Kogan said, is paid maternity leave (or parental leave, so pop can step in as well) to get the babies through that crucial first year of life without either making ourselves crazy by going back to work too soon — or staying home and going broke.  What we also need, she said, is “subsidized day care so one’s entire paycheck after year one is not going to the nanny.”

Amen to that.

And yet, we’ve all been conned by the subtext of the Mommy War meme:  it’s an either/or choice.  You stay home or you go gangbusters on your career.  Nothing in between.  All of which leads to a lot of judging.  But for most women, the choices are not quite so stark.

Kogan realized early on that motherhood was not compatible with war photography.  She moved to New York City, got a job at NBC, and with the birth of her first child took six months maternity leave and saw her family’s savings dwindle.  Twenty-one months later, she had her second child and, toward the end of her maternity leave, found herself called to Paris at the last minute – instantly weaning her daughter and without time to grab a breast pump – when Princess Di was killed.  Three years later, she asked her boss at NBC if she could cut back to a four-day work week.  Her boss said yes.  Her boss’s boss, a female VP, turned her down.  At which point, Kogan quit to stay home and write – and became a casualty of the Mommy Wars herself.

When “Shutterbabe” came out,  a memoir of her days as a photojournalist, she was called a sell-out, a “lactating nester,” a woman who had “left a brilliant career to be a soccer mom.”  Now, three books later, she is often asked, if she had to make a choice, which would it be:  Her children or her books?

I doubt that’s a question any male author has to answer.  I answer that I’d chose my children of course, but why on earth should I have to?

The real issue, Kogan says, is not the media-created catfight, but the fact that when (make that “if”) we end up judging each other for our choices, we’re fighting the wrong fight.

Toward the end of the session, a woman in the audience stood, asking if Kogan was doing anything herself to work on policy change.  Her answer? “No!  I’m too friggen busy. I always feel like one shoe is falling off.  And that’s at the heart of what happens – people who are affected by this, are just too busy.”

Later, I caught up with her for some additional thoughts:

It should really be us–all mothers–versus them–the men in Congress who keep trying to chip away, seemingly mercilessly, at the small gains women have made instead of pushing forward and rethinking the entire American paradigm, which is rotten to the core. So in that sense, it’s about controlling women: their access to birth control, family planning, and the normal benefits after the baby is born that all other developed countries take for granted. To me, the right wing Congressmen are just Taliban in suit and ties.

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I’ll bet you do.  That’s right: you, over there.  The one who just fished a shirt to wear to work out of the pile of dirty clothes on your bedroom floor.  Trust me, I do not judge, having worn the same running clothes for three days straight.  (Right.  Ew.)

Seems to me, if we’re in the workforce, we could all use a housewife at home to pick up the groceries and fold the clothes.  But whether we’re married or not, with or without kids, said housewife is likely to be you. No matter where you work, or how hard, when it comes to the second shift, ladies, we own it.

Which is something, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, that needs to change if we ever want to cut into the so-called ambition gap.   Sandberg has emerged as a leading voice in the quest to make life more doable — and the ladder more accessible — for those of us (read: most of us) who want the space to pursue both a career and a life.  And what she suggests is that if we ever want to get to fifty-fifty in the c-suites, we need to get to fifty-fifty back at home.

Unless, of course, we can hire a housewife.

In an interview for the Makers series from PBS and AOL, Sandberg spoke on a number of issues related to the difficulties women face in the workplace, from work-life balance (no such thing, she says) and the division of household labor.  The interview is broken up into mini-soundbites for quick hits of inspiration whenever you might need one, and at approximately 1:57 in this particular cut (scroll to the video at the bottom of the page) what she says is be careful who you marry (Cogent advice: we heard the same from Stanford economist Myra Strober, in an interview for our book):

The most important thing, I’ve said this a hundred times, if you marry a man, marry the right one.  If you can marry a woman, that’s better because the split between two women in the home is pretty even, data shows.

 But find someone to marry who’s going to do half.  Not just support your career by saying things – oh, of course you should work —  but actually get up and change half the diapers, because that’s what it takes.

Her overarching point? If women ran half the institutions, and men ran half the homes, the world would be a better place.  Hard to argue with that one, especially when you consider that, for most of us, the economy doesn’t allow for many single income families.  (And then, of course, there’s  the structure of today’s workplace that demands a 52 hour workweek.  But we’ve covered that.)

Anyway, I thought of all this housewife business the other day, after a class in which a student pitched a story on the lack of women in leadership positions in corporate America.  While we were brainstorming a fresh angle for the piece, one student brought up the issue of stay-at-home dads as one way to close the gap.  Good idea, right?  Especially in a classroom of forward-thinking millennial kids.  And so I turned to the men in the class and said, “Okay, how many of you would consider being a stay at home dad?”  Answers ranged from a reluctant “well, maybe” to “no way” to clearly the most honest answer of the bunch:  “I hate children.”  Which if nothing else was good for a laugh.  Then that student who had brought up the issue in the first place asked how many students had had stay-at-home dads.  Not quite radio silence, but close to it.

What struck me was the fact that here in 2012, a conversation about shifting gender roles seemed, to a classful of kick-ass college seniors, so, you know, quaint.  And so I brought up the topic again today, and one female student voiced a collective worry: I want a career and a family. But when and how do I make it  fit?  From the men, again, radio silence. What was interesting, but not entirely surprising, was that this was something none of the guys had ever considered.  Or, probably, would ever have to. You can be sure I pointed that out.

But then it struck me.  Is the issue the fact that we still define work outside of work in traditional gender terms? The most recent American Time Use Survey found that 20 percent of men did housework on a given day compared with 49 percent of women. Forty-one percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68 percent of women.  And then there’s this: back in 2008, the Gallup Lifestyle poll (the most recent one) found that married couples still maintain a traditional division of labor:  men did the yardwork and took care of the car, women did the dishes and took care of the kids.  (Which often makes me wonder how the division of labor breaks down in, say, Manhattan, where folks don’t have a lot of cars, and even fewer yards.  But, anyway.)

So maybe that’s our first step:  letting go of traditional gender expectations, especially at home.  I myself just dragged myself home from work.  My husband, who was watching a hockey game, greeted me at the door with a glass of Pinot. Much appreciated. We’re having leftovers for dinner.  And everyday, he packs my lunch.

My students think that’s cute.

As for my running clothes?  Sigh.  Don’t ask.

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When, over the span of little over a week, two huge studies find that, based on rankings by peers, supervisors, and direct reports, women are viewed as better leaders than men — and that, the higher the professional level, the wider the gap between the woman and her male counterpart (i.e., if you’ll pardon the grammar, the higher we are on the ladder, the, ahem, more better we are than the guy occupying the same rung)– but women are more underrepresented the higher up the ranks you climb, doncha start to wonder where the tipping point is? When those numbers will pick up some speed on the way to 50/50? Given these studies’ results, you’d think it should happen any day now.

In “Are Women Better Leaders Than Men?” Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, CEO and president, respectively, of leadership development consultancy firm Zenger/Folkman, write in the Harvard Business Review what they found in a survey they conducted of 7,280 leaders. These leaders were judged based on 360 evaluations (which take into account the opinions of those who work for these leaders, those who work with these leaders, and those who are the bosses of these leaders) rating each leader’s overall effectiveness and on “the 16 competencies that our 30 years of research shows are most important to overall leadership effectiveness.”

They note that some stereotypes were confirmed: one, that there are more men in leadership positions than women. And

Similarly, most stereotypes would have us believe that female leaders excel at “nurturing” competencies such as developing others and building relationships, and many might put exhibiting integrity and engaging in self-development in that category as well. And in all four cases our data concurred — women did score higher than men.

But the women’s advantages were not at all confined to traditionally women’s strengths. In fact, at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts.

And yet. We seem stalled. As Barnard College President Debora Spar said at a White House Conference on urban economic development recently, “We have fallen into the 16 percent ghetto, which is that if you look at any sector–be it aerospace engineering, Hollywood films, higher education, or Fortune 500 leading positions, women max out at roughly 16 percent… That is a crime, and is a waste of incredible talent.” While women have made incredible progress over a pretty short amount of time, our speed ain’t what it used to be. It’s as though, while we’ve kept one foot on the gas, another has taken up residence on the brake.

The foot that’s on the brake looks suspiciously like this: the fact that, as we are wont to say, the workplace is still built for the 50s stereotype–the guy who has a full-time wife at home to take care of, you know, life. Despite the fact that near no one lives like that anymore, by and large, the workplace hasn’t changed. In fact, one could argue that it’s gotten worse: thanks to the advent of things like cell phones and email, we’re supposed to be on call, even when we’re done for the day, scrambling to make it to the pharmacy before it closes, or running to meet the plumber, or even to go to the bloody grocery store — you know, the things that phantom 50s housewife would have taken care of for us. The workplace is not set up for anyone lacking that friendly, wifely ghost; man or woman, married or not. The logistical wizardry that’s required to manage both work and a life is daunting: and, the more intense our job, the more insane the juggling act. The more insane the juggling act, the more likely we become, at one point or another, to lean out, as Sheryl Sandberg might say. Throw kids — and a comparably employed partner — into the mix, and something’s (someone’s) often gotta give. Often the decision as to whose career will downshift is financial — and, as women often make less money than men, you know what that means, whose career will move to the slow lane. Two words: Mommy track.

So, back to my original question: when will things change? We’ve shown we can play their game–and we’re beginning to show just how well we can play it. But it’s time to redefine the game itself, to make it ours. Imagine, for a second: what your company, your country, your world would look like if there were as many women in charge as there are men? Really think about it.

Last week, I came across Do Women Make Better Bosses Than Men?, a piece referencing yet another study. Here’s the lede:

The survey found that women bosses were more democratic and easier to communicate with, allowing their employees to participate in decision-making and encouraging feedback on management policies.

And one would have to assume that management policies adjusted to reflect employee feedback would reflect our current realities: that employers need to take into account that all of their employees have a life — and if they support their employees’ ability to have a life outside of work, those employees are going to be that much more productive and engaged when they’re at work. Just exactly the sorts of changes that’ll likely make it more realistic for more women to stay in the game.

The whole situation can sound suspiciously like a Catch-22: it’ll take more women at the top to make the changes that are needed for more women to get to the top. But look at how far we’ve come: surely, if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s us.

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Once again, the “have it all” myth has reared it’s schizoid head.  This time, the poster-woman is Facebook’s second most famous face, COO Sheryl Sandberg, who graced the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Sandberg.  We all do.  A graduate of the Harvard Business School (and protege of Larry Summers), she’s emerged as one of the country’s most impressive female power brokers, not to mention role model to women and girls everywhere. And rightly so. As the Chronicle story points out, she’s a “passionate advocate for women to claim a far greater share of the top corporate leadership positions”:

But she says the sharing of leadership starts in the home.

“A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world,” Sandberg said during a May commencement address at Barnard College in New York City.

“To solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality, we need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored,” she said.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a leadership and organizational behavior professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said Sandberg has become “a symbol for a new wave of feminism, where women can own their power by just being women, where you don’t have to see that as totally incompatible. You can be feminine and be a totally powerful person.”

And hooray for that, right?  But where the story threw me sideways was a throw-away line in the preceding paragraph.  After writer Benny Evangelista noted that last year Forbes named Sandberg the fifth most powerful woman in the world, and Fortune named her the 12th most powerful woman in business, he wrote:

Yet she still managed to balance her professional life with raising two young children, making her the ultimate role model for women who want to have it all.

Have it all? Get real.  She’s got two young kids, a killer career and is married to the CEO of another Silicon Valley company, who presumably is pretty darn busy himself.  Clearly, she might have it all, but she surely can’t be doing it all.  At least not without lots of hired help.  (Sandberg, by the way, declines to be interviewed about anything but the company, according to Evangelista.)

And that’s the issue, isn’t it? As women who have come of age in the second half of the twentieth century, we’ve been raised with the mantra that we can have it all.  We can do anything.  We can do everything.  And yet.  Despite the progress we women have made in scarcely more than a generation, the world has not caught up.  Workplace structures, public policy — even the social culture — is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business.  But who lives like that anymore?  In this economy, who could?  And the 40-hour workweek?  A pipedream, especially once you leap upon the corporate ladder.  Or even if you don’t. Nonetheless, in most households, women own the second shift.  (Even Nobel Prize winners:  Biologist Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University was doing the laundry when she got the call that she had won the Nobel Prize in medicine.)

So, this notion of “having it all.”  It’s great, and all that. But there’s a problem of holding up superstars like Sandberg (or Angelina Jolie: we can all birth/adopt a bunch of kids and still find the time to make movies, right?) to convince us that we can run a company and raise family, all while wearing a big fat smile and some killer high heels. Cue the iconic sex-kitten ad from Enjolie perfume.

And that’s what makes me crazy. First, as we explore in Undecided, when we find our own sense of balance entirely off-kilter, which I suspect is most of the time for most of us, we feel as if we’re the ones who have blown it.  We’ve chosen wrong.  We’ve done it wrong.  Which leaves us lusting after that greener grass: we’ll have what she’s having, thank you very much.  We end up making the political the personal.

And that’s just wrong.  Because what I find most insidious about perpetrating the have-it-all myth is the fact that when we buy into it, we’re lulled into a false state of complacency that keeps us from pushing for the kind of change that would help us all, male and female alike, no matter where we sit on the food chain.  But it’s going to take work.  And conversation.

Not to put more words in Sandberg’s mouth, but I suspect she would approve.

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According to a new report out of Sweden, the answer may be no.

Sigh. Can’t you just hear the backlash? The ugly comparisons to the odious Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame?  The rousing chorus of “I told you so”?

Sorry, folks, but we don’t buy it. What we think this report speaks to is not what women may be doing wrong — but to the roadblocks,  both culturally and structurally, that still stand in our way.

The study, from the Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation (IFAU) and the Uppsala Center for Labor Studies (UCLS) at Uppsala University, suggests that women managers are no more likely to eradicate the wage gap as their male counterparts, nor are they likely to hire more women.  According to Science Daily:

…economist Lena Hensvik found no support for the claim that female managers entail any benefit for women in connection with wage setting. The study encompassed all of the public sector workplaces and a representative selection of private sector workplaces in Sweden during the years 1996-2008.

“At the first stage, I found that women with female managers receive higher salaries,” she says. “But when I went further and considered individuals who had had both male and female managers and how salary varies with manager gender, I found no significant difference between working for a woman and working for a man. Any differences appear to be tied to the individuals, not their managers.”

… But do women employ more women? Lena Hensvik asserts that there is no evidence that they do.

Let us be the first to say that we don’t buy the conclusion that the study necessarily shows that women in high places don’t benefit the rest of us.  Or that we can’t count on women leaders to mentor us in the way that, well, Larry Summers mentored Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Or that a woman boss is no more than a man in a skirt. (or, ahem, shoulder pads)  It’s a complicated issue that has much more nuance than the numbers might show: we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and the world has yet to catch up.  All of us — men included — are still stuck in a working world designed by and for men, and though women now make up close to half the workforce, structures, society, and policies have not made the shift. All of which leaves us in something of a pickle that goes beyond a series of stats.

To help figure it out, we talked to communication scholar Laura Ellingson, director of Women & Gender Studies at Santa Clara University.  She says it’s all about the questions that are not asked as opposed to the ones that are.  Bingo. That’s a conclusion we will buy.

When it comes to the wage gap, Ellingson points out, it’s been well-documented that men and women negotiate differently when it comes to salary.  “That is, men tend to negotiate once they receive an offer, while women tend to accept what they are offered. Hence, even when made identical offers for the same job, men tend to begin at a somewhat higher salary, a gap which widens over time. One might say that women should simply negotiate, but this is a very problematic piece of advice, since women who do negotiate are perceived quite negatively by managers if they use the same type of tactics that men use.”

It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale.  We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less.  All of which is infuriating, Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”

What’s more, Ellingson says, when it comes to hiring decisions, female managers are still operating in a workplace skewed toward masculine interests, masculine styles of communication, and masculine goals, so the idea that they would naturally hire more women per se, is a ridiculous assumption. “So I guess I just don’t grant the premise of [Lena Hensvik's report] in asking that question. Here’s what I would ask instead: what types of pressures are subtly communicated to female managers — by subordinates and supervisors — that are not communicated to male managers? Change the question, change the answer.”

Something else to consider: the cultural differences between Sweden and, certainly, the U.S.  (Not to mention the pay gap itself.  It’s on average 8 percent in Sweden; 20 percent here.) For insight, we turned to intercultural communication professor Charlotta Kratz, a native Swede who has been teaching in California universities since the 1990s. She says those differences are not to be underestimated.  According to Kratz, the experience of being a woman is of public interest in her country, which has led to a number of gender-equalizing structures throughout Swedish society. When we asked her about this particular report, she told us: “I would guess that the reason that there isn’t a bigger female ‘effect’ in Sweden is that the whole system is more female oriented. Swedish society is far more sensitive to gender issues in general compared to the U.S., meaning that Swedish men make different choices than American men.”  In other words, she says, there would be less of a difference between men and women in Sweden than there would be here in the U.S.

All of which brings us back to that issue of asking the right question.  Or, as feminist icon Gloria Steinem once said: “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.”  It’s not a question of whether our lady bosses have our backs — but whether the workplace itself is receptive to change.

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Today, I watched a TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” Sandberg gets into it, leading off with the bleak facts:

Of the 190 heads of state, nine are women.

Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women.

In the corporate sector, women at the top, C0level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent.

Even non-profits aren’t immune: there, only 20% of the top posts are held by women.

Ugly as those numbers are, one of Sandberg’s explanations is infinitely more so:

What the data shows, above all else, is one thing, which is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

In other words, the more successful a woman, the less likable we perceive her to be. Sandberg cites one study that illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. In it, Columbia Biz School prof Frank Flynn and colleague Cameron Anderson at NYU offered their students a case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. But she was only called Heidi in the case study given to half their students; in the other, Heidi became Howard.

And guess what happened?

While the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, they liked Howard–but not Heidi. In fact, according to a synopsis of the study,

students felt Heidi was significantly less likable and worthy of being hired than Howard. Why? Students saw Heidi as more “selfish” than Howard.

Is it any wonder we don’t want anyone calling us ambitious?

Naturally, I was irked by this. Subsequent Googling led me to a post on Stanford University’s website, about a talk given by Deborah Gruenfeld, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, to a group of high-level women execs and entrepreneurs at the Silicon Valley Thought Leadership Greenhouse program. Gruenfeld cited the same study, adding this disturbing little nugget:

And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.

In each instance, when Sandberg and Gruenfeld spoke of the study’s results, they noted all the heads nodding in agreement in the audience. And, truth be told, had I been in either audience, my head would be bobbing with the rest of them.

Both Sandberg and Gruenfeld have good, positive points to make, helpful suggestions to offer. But it all makes me wonder something: as much as these negative perceptions might be a hindrance to our success in the workplace, how might the mixed messages (You can have it all! You can do anything you want! But you won’t be liked if you’re too successful, and be careful not to come off as too ambitious) screw with our decision making? When we’re overwhelmed by our options, how much of the overwhelm is attributable to the options themselves, and how much has to do with our concerns over how we might be perceived were we to choose Option A versus Option B? How quickly are we landed right back at the altar of What Will People Think?

Of course, it’s not just what people think–it’s what they do (and who they hire). But you know what? There is actually a bright side hidden within the actual study. Sort of. Call it the I’m Not Sexist; Some of My Best Friends Are Women! effect:

Flynn and his colleagues ran another experiment on the relationship between the students’ familiarity with their peers and how they rated them. When raters didn’t really know their classmates, they responded just as the students in the Heidi/Howard experiment. More assertive men were seen as more hirable while more assertive women were seen as less hirable. But when students were more familiar with the person they were rating, the “backlash” vanished. Assertive men and women were seen as equally hirable. And more assertive women were more likely to be hired than their less assertive female peers (just like men).

Interesting. And heartening. As are Sandberg’s final words:

I have two children. I have a five year-old son and a two year-old daughter. I want my son to have a choice to contribute fully in the workforce or at home, and I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.

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