This week, Nick Kristof reported that there was only 17% female attendance at this year’s World Economic Forum. In the United States, only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women. At McKinsey & Company, where Sheryl Sandberg worked after business school and I will work after graduation, only 17 percent of partners globally are women.
So the question on everyone’s (okay.. maybe every elite woman’s) mind is WHY?!? Women are leaning back. This is Sheryl Sandberg’s contribution to the debate (keep an eye out for the full book, Lean In, in March). Her argument is pretty simple: “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” To add value in the workplace, one must actively contribute to the conversation, but Sandberg argues that women struggle between this professional expectation of being assertive and the social expectation of being submissive and conciliatory.
My thoughts? There is definitely some merit to this for some women. Next time you are in class, count how many times a woman will apologize for asking a question, be obviously embarrassed when answering a question incorrectly, or qualify her statements with an incredibly annoying series of self-deprecating or self-doubting phrases. Count how many times a man will interrupt a classmate, challenge a professor, or push a point of personal interest, regardless of the class dynamics. If a woman plays this more assertive role, what is the class reaction? What happens when she outshines (or outearns) her male colleagues and goes toe-to-toe with her superiors? This, folks, is leaning in. Or not giving a shit. But Sheryl’s publishers didn’t approve that title.
The issue with this explanation is that it emphasizes what women are doing wrong – rather than how women can be better supported. There are plenty of women who are assertive and are leaning in, only to have someone block their place at the table. Plenty of structural and societal issues still exist (which Sandberg admittedly acknowledges). Most of the issues discussed are most pertinent to 40-something ladder-climbers. Women need flexible work schedules to take care of their children. They need to be given reasonable maternity leaves. But what about us 20-something fresh-out-of (insert overpriced, prestigious University here)? Here are some reasons why, even way before kids/work-life balance issues come into play, assertive women are head butting against some painful glass ceilings:
- Expected leadership style
- Mentorship limitations
- Personal life issues
I will explore these further in future posts about how to become and grow the 17 percent. But for now, ladies, lean in. Don’t qualify or apologize for your opinions. Don’t be afraid to face rejection or be flat out wrong. And don’t be afraid to defend your view when you think you’re flat our right.
Look out for more posts by Alissa Orlando on becoming and growing the 17%!