January 10 2011
If you haven’t already watched this video by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg about why there are fewer women making it to the top of the career ladder, I recommend it. Sandberg is easy to listen to – intelligent, pleasing, and thoughtful in her assessment.
The goal of her speech is not to offer public policy prescriptions or changes to the workplace to better accommodate career women; rather, her focus is on how women can better help themselves succeed in the professional arena. This self-help style of modern feminism has become popular in recent years – check out Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success – and it should be applauded.
Sandberg’s observations about female behavior are interesting (and probably pretty accurate). Certainly, she gives weight to the notion that men and women really are different. For instance, she references a study that found that 57 percent of male college graduates negotiate their first salary, while only seven percent of women do the same. I was struck by this difference between men and women, perhaps, because I was not part of that 7 percent.
The crux of her speech, however, is to offer women advice about how to succeed. She emphasizes that the kinds of choices women make – from where they choose to sit at a meeting to when they decide to take maternity leave – can have a dramatic effect on their long-term career success. Perhaps her best piece of advice is, “don’t leave before you leave,” by which she’s referring to the impulse many women have to start ratcheting back their workload – and their ambition – before actually taking time off to have a baby.
Still I felt something was missing from Sandberg’s talk. She’s sharing about what she knows – full-time working women in corporate America -- and she’s focused on the underrepresentation of women. But when critics charge that women are underrepresented in politics or business, my first impulse is not to assume it’s because of sexism or an antiquated workplace culture (although, I don’t discredit those ideas completely). Rather, I’m reminded of the myriad choices women have today and recognize that women have more opportunities than ever before to create a more level work-life balance.
As Sandberg clearly acknowledges, women and men are different and make different choices in their lives. We may have fewer female CEO’s, for instance, but more women than men earned PhD’s in 2010. Too often what women like Sandberg want for women is not necessarily what women want for themselves. She offers good -- great -- advice. But the fact is many of her suggestions would actually help women who don’t want to be part of the C-suite. Asserting oneself in the workplace, staying focused, and building important relationships will help all women – especially those who prefer to negotiate more flexibility and balance between motherhood and their careers.
Watch the video here and tell us what you think.