«BOOK SUMMARY Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead By Sheryl Sandberg The Leadership Ambition Gap – What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? ...»
Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg
The Leadership Ambition Gap – What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?
Even though I grew up in a traditional home, my parents had the same expectations for me, my sister, and my brother. All
three of us were encouraged to excel in school, do equal chores, and engage in extracurricular activities. We were all supposed to be athletic too. My brother and sister joined sports teams, but I was the kid that got picked last in gym. Despite my athletic shortcomings, I was raised to believe that girls could do anything boys could do and that all career paths were open to me.
When I arrived at college in the fall of 1987, my classmates of both genders seemed equally focused on academics. I don’t remember thinking about my future career any differently from the male students. I also don’t remember any conversations about someday balancing work and children. My friends and I assumed that we would have both. Men and women competed openly and aggressively with one another in classes, activities, and job interviews. Just two generations removed from my grandmother, the playing field seemed to be level.
But more than twenty years after my college graduation, the world has not evolved nearly as much as I believed it would.
Almost all of my classmates work in professional settings. Some of my female classmates work in professional settings. Some of my female classmates work full-time or part-time outside the home, and just as many are stay-at-home mothers and volunteers like my mom. This mirrors the national trend. In comparison to their male counterparts, highly trained women are scaling back and dropping out of the workforce in high numbers. In turn, these diverging percentages teach institutions and mentors to invest more in men, who are statistically more likely to stay.
So what happened? My generation was raised in an era of increasing equality, a trend we thought would continue. In retrospect, we were naïve and idealistic. Integrating professional and personal aspirations proved far more challenging than we had imagined. During the same years that our careers demanded maximum time investment, our biology demanded that we have children. Our partners did not share the housework and child rearing, so we found ourselves with two full-time jobs.
The workplace did not evolve to give us the flexibility we needed to fulfill our responsibilities at home. We anticipated none of this. We were caught by surprise.
If my generation was too naïve, the generations that have followed may be too practical. We knew too little, and now girls know too much. Girls growing up today are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement. Many of these girls watched their mother try to “do it all” and then decide that something had to give. That something was usually their careers.
The pipeline that supplies the educated workforce is chock-full of women at the entry level, but by the time that same pipeline is filling leadership positions, it is overwhelmingly stocked with men. There are so many reasons for this winnowing out, but one important contributor is a leadership ambition gap. Of course, many individual women are as professionally ambitious as any individual man. Yet drilling down, the data clearly indicate that in field after field, more men than women aspire to the most senior jobs. A 2012 McKinsey survey of more than four thousand employees of leading companies found that 36 percent of the men wanted to reach the C-suite, compared to only 18 percent of the women. When jobs are described as powerful, challenging, and involving high levels of responsibility, they appeal to more men than women. And while the ambition gap is more pronounced at the highest levels, the underlying dynamic is evident at every step of the career ladder. A survey of college students found that more men than women chose “reaching a managerial level” as a career priority in the first three years after graduating. Even among highly educated professional men and women, more men than women described themselves as “ambitious.” There is some hope that a shift is starting to occur in the next generation. A 2012 Pew study found for the first time that among young people ages eighteen to thirty-four, more young women (66 percent) than young men (59 percent) rated “success in a high-paying career or profession” as important to their lives. A recent survey of Millennials found that women were just as likely to describe themselves as ambitious as men. Although this is an improvement, even among this demographic, the leadership ambition gap remains. Millennial women are less likely than Millennial men to agree that the statement “I aspire to a leadership role in whatever field I ultimately work” describes them very well. Millennial women were also less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as “leaders,” “visionaries,” “self-confident,” and “willing to take risks.” Since more men aim for leadership roles, it is not surprising that they obtain them, especially given all the other obstacles that women have to overcome. Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional – or worse, sometimes even a negativefor women. “She is very ambitious” is not a compliment in our culture. Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.
Many have argued with me that ambition is not the problem. Women are not less ambitious than men, they insist, but more enlightened with different and more meaningful goals. I do not dismiss or dispute this argument. There is far more to life than climbing a career ladder, including raising children, seeking personal fulfillment, contributing to society and improving the lives of others. And there are many people who are deeply committed to their jobs but do not – and should not have to – aspire to run their organizations. Leadership roles are not the only way to have profound impact.
Compounding the problem is a social-psychological phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” Social scientists have observed that when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype, they are more likely to perform according to that stereotype. For example, stereotypically, boys are better at math and science than girls. When girls are reminded of their gender before a math or science test, even by something as simple as checking off an M or F box at the top of the test, they perform worse. Stereotype threat discourages girls and women from entering technical fields and is one of the key reasons that so few study computer science.
The stereotype of a working woman is rarely attractive. Popular culture has long portrayed successful working women as so consumed by their careers that they have no personal life. A study found that of Millennial men and women who work in an organization with a woman in a senior role, only about 20 percent want to emulate her career. This unappealing stereotype is particularly unfortunate since most women have no choice but to remain in the workforce. About 41 percent of mothers are primarily breadwinners and earn the majority of their family’s earnings. Another 23 percent of mothers are co-breadwinners, contributing at least a quarter of the family’s earnings. The number of women supporting families on their own is increasing quickly; between 1973 and 2006, the proportion of families headed by a single mother grew from one to ten to one in five.
These numbers are dramatically higher in Hispanic and African-American families. Twenty-seven percent of Latino children and 52 percent of African-American children are being raised by a single mother.
Of all industrialized nations in the world, the United States is the only one without a paid maternity leave policy. For many men, the fundamental assumption is that they can have both a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life. For many women, the assumption is that trying to do both is difficult at best and impossible at worst. Women are surrounded by headlines and stories warning them that they cannot be committed to both their families and their careers. They are told over and over again that they have to choose, because if they try to do too much, they’ll be harried and unhappy. Framing the issues as “work-life balance” – as if the two were diametrically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?
The good news is that not only can women have both families and careers, they can thrive while doing so. In 2009, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober published Getting to 50/50, a comprehensive review of governmental, social science, and original research that led them to conclude that children, parents, and marriages can all flourish when both parents have full careers.
The data plainly reveal that sharing financial and child-care responsibilities leads to less guilty moms, more involved dads, and thriving children. Professor Rosalind Chait Barnett at Brandeis University did a comprehensive review of studies on work-life balance and found that women who participate in multiple roles actually have lower levels of anxiety and high levels of mental well-being. Employed women reap rewards including greater financial security, more stable marriages, better health, and, in general, increase life satisfaction.
We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers. The current negative images may make us laugh, but they also make women unnecessarily fearful by presenting life’s challenges as insurmountable. Our culture remains baffled: I don’t know how she does it.
Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.
In 2011, Debra Spar, president of Barnard College, invited me to deliver its commencement address. This speech was the first time I openly discussed the leadership ambition gap. Standing on the podium, I felt nervous. I told the members of the graduating class that they could be ambitious not just in pursuing their dreams but in aspiring to become leaders in their fields.
I knew this message could be misinterpreted as my judging women for not making the same choices that I have. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I believe that choice means choice for all of us. But I also believe that we need to do more to encourage women to reach for leadership roles. If we can’t tell women to aim high at a college graduation, when can we? As I addressed the enthusiastic women, I found myself fighting back the tears. I know my speech was meant to motivate them, but they actually motivated me. In the months that followed, I started thinking that I should speak up more often and more publicly about these issues. I should urge more women to believe in themselves and aspire to lead. I should urge more men to become part of the solution by supporting women in the workforce and at home. Writing this book is not just me encouraging others to lean in. This is me leaning in. Writing this book is what I would do if I weren’t afraid.
Sit at the Table A few years ago, I hosted a meeting for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at Facebook. Secretary Geithner arrived with four members of his staff, two senior and two more junior, and we all gathered in our one nice conference room. Our invited guests, mostly men, grabbed their plates and food and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats.
The four women had every right to be at this meeting, but because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants. I knew I had to say something. So after the meeting, I pulled them aside to talk. I pointed out that they should have sat at the table even without an invitation, but when publicly welcomed, they most certainly should have joined.
At first, they seemed surprised, and then they agreed.
My senior year of college, I was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. At that time, Harvard and Radcliffe had separate chapters, so my ceremony was for women only. The keynote speaker, Dr. Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women, gave a talk called “Feeling Like a Fraud.” She explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are – impostors with limited skills or abilities.
This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name – the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.