September 20 2011
A few months ago Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a speech that quickly went viral about why there aren't more women making it to the top of the career ladder. It was a great speech - motivating, intelligent and thoughtful. She didn't offer policy prescriptions or propose ways in which the workplace could better accommodate women; rather, she told women how they could better help themselves succeed.
Today my IWF colleague Libby Jacobsen alerted me to Leslie Bradshaw's new blog over at Forbes.com, where the opening entry is titled, "Why Women Having a Seat at the Table is Not Enough." Bradshaw is playing off of Sandberg's advice that the kinds of choices women make - starting with where they choose to sit at a meeting - can have a dramatic impact on their long-term professional success.
Bradshaw, however, goes further to argue that it's not enough for women to be at the table - it's where they sit that matters. She writes in the same vein as conservative commentator Leslie Sanchez (see my review of her book Political Women: You've Come A Long Way Maybe) that women are often influencers but not decisionmakers. Bradshaw laments the fact, for instance, that "only 6 percent of Fortune 100 CEOs are women (and none of them run companies above #39)." Or that "only 8 percent of technology start-ups are led by women." And she argues that this underrepresentation of women at the very top of corporate, political, even religious, life doesn't comport with the changing role of women and their educational achievements today.
While I sympathize with Bradshaw's argument - and I think it's important to continue talking about how women can help themselves more effectively navigate professional life - something is missing from this larger conversation: that professional women today have more choices and opportunities than they've ever had before to create a level work-life balance.
Men and women are different, make different choices and live different lives. It's true we have fewer female CEOs, for instance, but more women than men earned Ph.D.s in 2010. And who's to say one is more important than the other? Too often what women like Sandberg or Bradshaw might want for women is not necessarily what women - even professional women - want for themselves.
I applaud both Sandberg and Bradshaw for focusing on how women can help themselves - negotiate more, don't drop out of the workplace too soon, find a female role model. But we could take the conversation further by emphasizing how these suggestions can help all women, even those who don't want to be part of the C-suite. In fact these suggestions can be most useful to those women who want to negotiate more flexibility and balance between motherhood and their career.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.