I’ve just finished Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. It has stimulated some thoughts that have been churning idly in the back of my mind for awhile now.
Women in the workplace, workplace trends in general… These topics fascinate me. Women want to be liberated and to have the freedoms that men do, and to a large extent, we do. Women do better than men in college admission and college graduation rates. However, more often than not, women are still choosing not to pursue certain arenas, and thus, those arenas are still dominated by men. Specifically – top business positions are still occupied largely by men.
Why is that? Sandberg examines this question and determines that the answer is, of course, complicated. She points out there are pervasive cultural norms to battle against. Little girls who are aggressive are called bullies, while little boys who are aggressive are driven, dominant, or ambitious. Men can be angry or cross at work without being accused of being bitchy or on the rag. Men who do well at work are liked by men and women. Women who do well at work are disliked, by both men and women. There is a cultural factor to all of this. And when confronted with it, most women do not choose to lean in and challenge it. They opt out.
That is Sandberg’s challenge to women – lean in more, to all aspects of life, but she’s focusing on careers.
Sandberg is a successful woman in an executive level position. She’s the COO of Facebook. She left a high position at Google to take it. She’s one of the only people who could say such a thing and have people listen to her. If a man had said, “ladies, you need to do more if you want to be noticed,” he would have been crucified for daring to suggest it’s our fault. Such a statement implies that women haven’t done enough. But coming from a woman, it’s bearable and possible to listen.
Sandberg doesn’t say that all women need to try for executive positions. She does suggest that all women need to lean in more, sit at the table. Literally. One study showed that in a conference room where there aren’t enough chairs around the table, it’s the women who volunteer to sit at the edges of the room. Another study showed that women will still sit at the edges even when there are enough chairs for everyone at the table. They physically remove themselves from the heart of the conversation. Attitudes like that are the things that need to change culturally before women have a chance to close the gender gaps at the top.
Sandberg has been criticized soundly for some ideas in this book, but i found nothing to be critical of. It is one woman’s story, along with a whole bunch of interesting research.
Other reading i have done on this topic:
- Two posts by Penelope Trunk, whom i admire and have strong reactions to (positive or negative). I do think her perspective on careers, and women in business, is right more often than not.
- An essay from The Atlantic on why women still can’t have it all. Linked to from one of Trunk’s articles, but worth a read on its own.