“Wow, that’s great.”
That was my reaction when I came across a series in the NY Times called, “Women At Work.” I figured it would profile different women at the top of their fields, showing just how far we’ve come. When I noticed that one of the co-authors was none other than Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and architect of the “Leaning In” movement, that sealed it. I poured a cup of coffee and prepared to be inspired by stories of women who defeated the odds and scaled the corporate ladder.
As it turned out, I was in for a bit of shock.
The series most certainly is not a rah-rah puff piece showcasing the success of female CEOs. It’s an eye-opener; a collection of anecdotes, statistics, and study data illustrating the hurdles women still face in achieving leadership positions.
“Are things really that bad?” I thought, recalling articles I’ve recently read about women like Marissa Mayer (Yahoo CEO), Susie Fogelson (SVP of Marketing and Brand Strategy at the Food Network), and entrepreneur (and Shark Tank investor) Barbara Corcoran. “I thought we were doing okay.”
And that, according to Sandberg, is precisely the point. We are doing ‘okay.’ While it’s true that women have far more opportunity now than in years past, we still have a ways to go. In the corporate sector, women occupy about 15 percent of C-level jobs and board seats, and what’s worse, “the numbers haven’t moved since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction,” she said during a TEDtalk.
There are, of course, numerous factors that attribute to this disturbing trend, but the two the authors chose to focus on extremely compelling:
- Women, according to Sandberg, “systematically underestimate their own abilities.”
- Women aren’t being encouraged to speak up.
The two factors combine to create an environment in which women are either holding themselves back due to a lack of confidence, or are being held back by others. Not exactly a recipe for career success.
“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea,” wrote Sandberg and co-author Adam Grant, citing findings from a number of studies focused on gender bias. One study concluded that male employees who contributed revenue-generating ideas earned significantly higher performance evaluations, while equally valuable ideas presented by female employees failed to improve their managers’ perception of their performance.
Grant also shared an anecdote from the producer of a TV show who noticed that the two female writers on staff were quiet during story meetings. When he asked them why, they said every time they started to speak, they were interrupted or shot down before finishing their pitch. “Watch when happens,” the women told him. He did, and he was stunned.
These may not seem like the most compelling pieces of evidence, but in fact, these more subtle examples of discrimination can be just as damaging as the stats pointing to unequal pay, according to another pair of authors, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett. In the book “The New Soft War on Women,” Rivers and Barnett cite the following data to demonstrate that discrimination, though not as obvious, is still rampant:
- When men and women work together on a project, men get more credit (New York University study, 2005)
- Women are promoted on performance, men on promise (McKinsey & Co., 2011)
- Mothers are seen as less committed to work than childless women, while fathers are more likely to be promoted than childless men (Cornell University, 2005).
If you still don’t think it’s a problem, ask a female colleague. Sadly, most (if not all of us) have stories that will leave you shaking your head. Most of us have been ignored, interrupted, or even silenced during a meeting. Most of us have been overlooked for promotions or leadership positions, or denied the praise we earned. Most of us have had our confidence shaken by sexist remarks. And while we might be doing ‘okay,’ that simply isn’t enough.
Do yourself and your team a favor and take a look at what Sandberg and Grant wrote. It just may open your eyes as well.