Women and the Will to Lead

07 Nov, 2013

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When Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, found herself on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Powerful Women she admitted that, “far from feeling powerful, I felt embarrassed and exposed.” She even told colleagues that she thought the list was “ridiculous” until her Executive Assistant, Camille Hart, pulled her aside and suggested Sandberg was handling this publicity poorly. Hart said that Sandberg needed to “lean in” and accept, rather than shy away from, this great honour.

In her new book, Lean In, Sandberg urges women to fight for what they deserve in the workplace. She encourages women to confront gender stereotypes at a time when gender bias is still more alive and well than most of us may want to admit. Lean In shows how despite the major improvements regarding gender equality, further strides towards equal opportunity for women still need to be taken.

Women today have truly benefited from the struggles of previous generations. Nevertheless, men still run the world. Sandberg reveals that out of 197 heads of state, only 22 are women; out of the top 500 companies by revenue, only 21 are headed by women; and women hold just 98 out of 531 of congressional offices in the United States. This imbalance can also be seen at Desautels: a quick comparison of the male and female full- time faculty members showed a ratio of 2.7:1, with close to 70 men compared to 25 women.

Beyond demonstrating that women still occupy less powerful roles than men, Sandberg explains that women in positions of power are also less liked than men in the same positions. She discusses the “Howard/Heidi” study, where a person of identical characteristics and qualifications was presented to a group of students, once as female Heidi and once as male Howard. Students were then asked to rate them based on several criteria. The students rated them as equally successful, but they found Howard more likeable while Heidi seemed more selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Sandberg concluded that a successful woman is less liked than a successful man.

Given these results, how motivated are women to do well if their success leads others to dislike them? Sandberg admits that she has undermined her own accomplishments for fear that others would be turned off by her abilities. During her first performance review with Mark Zuckerberg, six months into her job at Facebook, Zuckerberg told her that her desire to be liked by everyone was holding her back. “If you please everyone you won’t change anything,” he advised.  Sandberg exhorts working women to overcome the “Howard/Heidi” stereotype and to take pride in their achievements. “Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders,” she writes, “including female leaders themselves.”

Women are taught to be humble, which often makes us our greatest enemy. We consistently tell ourselves that we “can’t do it.” Sandberg confesses that she was only able to negotiate with Zuckerburg for a higher wage after receiving encouragement from her husband. This anecdote yet again displays Sandberg’s own vulnerability—even as a COO of a multibillion company— and underlines how tough it can be, as a woman, to realize our worth and fight for what we deserve in the business world.

Finally, Sandberg discusses the responsibilities of the emerging female elite, a group that has become a prominent part of society only in the past few decades. “We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us,” she describes, “women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted.” Our great-grandmothers could never have imagined the kind of lives we have now, because we have many more choices than the women who came before us. Belonging to a new, educated and free generation of women, we have the power to reshape our societies. So, let’s not lean back but rather, let’s lean in and make our grandmothers proud!

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