Will women “leaning in” break the glass ceiling?

Posted September 5th, 2013 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Debate over the existence of a “glass ceiling” for women for top leadership positions has been renewed by the publication of the book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and some new research data on gender equity. Sandberg is ranked on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Lean In is a book built around advice for women seeking to succeed, based on  Sheryl Sandberg’s own incredible career success and experience of balancing career and family. Her book is full of pragmatic strategies and tips—everything from how to negotiate a raise to how to stop people pleasing behavior; mentorship; building a satisfying career, and urging women to abandon the myth of “having it all.” Sandberg’s major argument is that if  women want a serious career and rise to the top, they must be passionate about their aspirations and go for it, as successful men do.

Sandberg has attracted both passionate supporters and critics to her message. Sandberg makes the point that is incontrovertible—women are seriously underrepresented in top levels of leadership. In my article “ Why Women May Be Better Leaders Than Men,” I described detailed research on the glass ceiling in current times.

Perhaps the income gap—which is rapidly increasing in the US. And Canada—is at the crux of the backlash to Sandberg. A Pew Center study released in May, 2013 revealed that working mothers are the sole or primary provider in a record 40% of U.S. households. Women still don’t have equal pay in many jurisdictions, and the standard of living for the middle class and the poor continues to decline. And clearly women are at the center of these disturbing trends.

Critics of Sandberg say she does what some other successful women have done—blame other women who are less successful for not trying hard enough. One of Sandberg’s chief critics has been Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who published an article in Atlantic Magazine, argues Sandberg is holding women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success.

Recent research from Concordia University by Steven Applebaum shows that even though women may actually be better suited than men to hold leadership positions, only 3% of top executives among Fortune 500 firms are women. He says that’s because “women are still perceived as inferior leaders.” He goes to say “This ill-conceived notion needs to change—and fast. At the current rate, we won’t see gender equality in the boardroom until 2081.”

The obvious questions are: Why does the glass ceiling persist? And what should be done about it?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review by Hermina Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb, contend companies need to take additional action by educating men and women about second-generation bias; have women internalize a leadership identity; and develop a sense of purpose. Second-   generation bias is defined as a “paucity of role models for women, gendered career paths and gendered work, women’s lack of access to networks and sponsors, and leadership being defined in masculine characteristics.”

Tamara Vrooman, CEO of Vancity Savings, Canada’s largest credit union, is a Canadian example of a female who has reached a top leadership position at a young age, after a career as Deputy Minister of Finance for the B.C. Government. In an interview with me, Vrooman said “Women do have to be passionate about their goals…but this doesn’t mean being like men. One of the reasons we want to have more women in leadership positions because they bring a different perspective than men.” Vrooman went on to say that there’s a “superwoman” tension, with an imbalance of expectations in the home that impacts women’s careers. “You can have 50/50 in the workplace,” Vrooman argues, “but it’s still 90/10 in the home.” She agrees with Sanford’s contention that women who aspire to top leadership positions have to choose a life partner who believes in equality in the home as well as work. Finally, Vrooman says that the culture of organizations has embraced a stereotype of what leadership should look like, which is predominantly male in characteristic, and that has to change.

In a new book, The Athena Doctrine, co-authors Michael D’Antonio and John Gerzema reported their research of 64,000 people in 13 diverse countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia that indicate widespread dissatisfaction with skills and competencies that are perceived as more feminine. In particular, that view was shared by nearly 80% of the millennial generation (both men and women)–most notably in highly masculine societies like Brazil, South Korea, Japan and India. Two-thirds of survey respondents felt that “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.

In the final analysis, Sandberg would argue that women must take responsibility to lean in and make it happen. Surely organizations and the men who run them should share that responsibility. Otherwise, it would be akin to arguing that equal achievement in civil rights was the sole responsibility of the African-American people in the U.S., with no responsibility for government and business.

* This article was written with the assistance of Makenzie Chilton, a life coach            in Vancouver, B.C.