Fifty-seven percent of Bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, 60% of master’s degrees are earned by women, and 46.7% of women are in the U.S labor force (Northouse, 2013, p.352). These are incredible numbers that show the progress we’ve made as women, and a society within the last century. However, when we look at women in leadership, the numbers paint a less impressive picture. Out of 190 heads of state, only 9 are women; in global parliament, only 13% are women; and in the corporate sector, women in top positions (c-level jobs, board seats, etc) max out at 15-16% (Sandberg, 2010). Why are women under-whelmingly represented in leadership positions around the world, when our education and workforce numbers are competitive to that of our male counterparts? Northouse (2013) explains this leadership gap through what he calls the leadership labyrinth, which is comprised of human capital, gender differences, and prejudice. These issues are not new, and it’s easy to blame society and male counterparts for this leadership gap. However, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook offers a refreshing look into how these issues of the leadership labyrinth can be addressed through women themselves. She gives three messages on how women can close this leadership gap by staying in the workforce through: sitting at the table, making your partner a real partner, and not leaving before you leave.
Eagly and Carli (2004,2007) state lack of human capital as a reason for the leadership labyrinth, saying women have less human capital investment in education, training, and work experience than men (as cited in Northouse,2013, p.354). However, this “pipeline problem” is weakly supported with more women earning undergraduate degrees than men, and earning professional and doctorate degrees at a greater rate or nearly equal to that of men. So filling the pipeline is not the problem, a closer look reveals a leak in the pipeline is to blame. Research by Keith and McWilliams (1999) show that women are more likely to quit for family-related reasons than men, and women have less work experience or employment continuity than men, due to the disproportionate responsibility women assume for child rearing and domestic purposes (Bowles & McGinn, 2005; and Eagly & Carli, 2007). Sandberg’s support for this is staggering, stating, in a household where both partners are working full-time, the woman does twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare the man does (2010). This is where Sandberg’s “making your partner, a real partner” comes into play. Husbands and wives need to support each other equally, women should not shoulder majority of home life responsibility, and stay-at-home dads should be more commonplace than it is. It’s not all up to the men to make this change, Sandberg talks about her mommy-and-me classes where there is only one father there, and the other moms sort of reject his presence. As women, we need to celebrate these types of actions and behaviors and present them as standard and expected. By striving to extinguish gender roles, and simply supporting each other in a true partnership manner, we can began to plug the leak in the pipeline problem. In fact, studies show households with equal earning and equal responsibility have half the divorce rate and more intimacy (Sandberg, 2010).
Other arguments that seek to explain this leadership gap are gender differences; simply that women are different than men, e.g leadership style, effectiveness, and traits (Northouse, 2013). However, Eagly and Carli (2007) found effective leadership is comprised of androgynous traits such as intelligence, social skills, initiative, and ability to persuade (as cited in Northouse,2013, p.357). Empirical research by Bowles and McGinn (2005) indicates that men are more likely than women to promote themselves for leadership positions; and that women are also less likely to negotiate than men are. Though there may be minute differences between women and men, these differences are not to blame for the leadership gap. Women, differences and all, have the same ability to emerge as leaders as men. The true issue in gender differences can be explained through Sandberg’s message of “don’t leave before you leave.” Women may be getting in their own way of leadership emergence, and it may be subconscious. Sandberg explains, the actions that women are taking, with the objective of staying in the workforce, ironically lead to their eventual leaving. The issue here is that we as women, start planning so far into the future, that we subconsciously start “leaning back” or stopping ourselves from moving forward, in the anticipation of our future family. Why is this detrimental to women emerging as leaders? Well, if a woman were to choose to go back to work, after having a child, the job must be inspiring, challenging, and rewarding (Sandberg, 2010). The problem is that women may never reach that point in their careers because once they start out in the workforce, they are already making subconscious decisions to leave, or what Sandberg calls “leaning back.” If you are not constantly moving forward, making decisions to further your career, you will ultimately be bored or unsatisfied with your job, making the decision to leave when you have a family, fairly easy. Sandberg urges women to “keep their foot on the gas pedal”, climb the corporate ladder, be selfish, take chances, and then when the time comes, when you need to take break to have a child, then make your decision. Give yourself a fair chance in the workforce, and strive to fulfill your highest potential until the absolute last minute that you must make decisions based on raising a family. Don’t let the anticipation of having a child kill your chances of having a career before it even starts.
The most popular reason for this leadership gap is prejudice. Hoyt and Chemers (2008) believe that the leadership gap revolves around gender biases stemming from stereotyped expectations that women take care and men take charge. In terms of leadership, these stereotypes can be damaging to women. The agentic qualities believed necessary in the leadership role are incompatible with the predominantly communal qualities stereo-typically associated with women based on the role congruity theory (Northouse, 2013). Sandberg (2010) talks about a famous Harvard Business School study done on Heidi Roizen, an operator at a Silicon Valley company, who used her contacts to become an extremely successful venture capitalist. In 2002, a professor at Columbia University took the case and changed “Heidi” to “Howard”. He then gave both the Heidi and Howard cases to two groups of students and surveyed them. The not so surprising result? Though all students thought Heidi and Howard were both competent, they did not have the same positive affection towards Heidi as they did Howard. To the students, Howard was a great guy, they wanted to hang out with him, they wanted to work for him. However, with Heidi, they felt she was too “political”, and maybe a little narcissistic. This just goes to show how deep rooted these gender prejudices run; so much so that women themselves are becoming victims to this self-fulfilling prophecy. Believing that they are not as good as men, less intelligent, less deserving. This hinders women’s progress and the closing of the gap.
Sandberg tells a funny anecdote about a European Intellectual History class she took with her friend and younger brother in college. Her friend, an exemplary literary student, read every single book in original Greek and Latin versions and attends all of the lectures; Sandberg herself reads all the books in English and attends most of the lectures, and her brother, read one book (of 12) and attends a couple of lectures. After their exam, they discussed how each person felt they did. Her friend Carrie says “Boy, I feel like I didn’t really draw out the main point on the Hegelian dialectic,” to which Sandberg says “God, I really wish I had connected John Locke’s theory of property with the philosophers who follow;” however, her brother says, “ I got the top grade in the class.” This is a humorous display of a more serious issue- women are systematically underestimating their own abilities.Thus Sandberg’s final message, “sit at the table.” Don’t sit on the sidelines. Women need to be confident in their roles in the workplace, and continue to reach for opportunities. After a recent lecture at Facebook, one of Sandberg’s listeners, a young woman approached her with the idea that she should keep her hand up. What she was referring to, was after the lecture, Sandberg said she would take two questions, which she did. At that point, the young woman put her hand down, as did the rest of the women in the crowd. However, Sandeberg went on to take more questions from those that still had their hands raised- the men. It is astonishing the number of little events like this that exist everyday. If women don’t pay attention, they will never be able to overcome these gender stereotypes, or even give themselves a chance to compete equally with men. This is why “sitting at the table” is so important, women cannot get to the corner office by sitting on the side, they cannot get the promotion if they don’t think they deserve or even understand their success (Sandberg, 2010). If we, as women, don’t believe in ourselves, how can we began to convince society and the corporate world? Through Sandberg’s messages of sitting at the table, making your partner a real partner, and don’t leave before you leave, we can address the issues of the leadership labyrinth; human capital, gender differences, and prejudice. Through staying in the present, believing in our potential, ignoring gender stereotypes, and viewing our relationships as partnerships, we strengthen our pipeline by remaining in the workforce, and slowly but surely, close the leadership gap.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sandberg, Sheryl (2010, December) Why we have too few women leaders [Video file]. retrieved November 18th, 2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_