2017-03-09 | Susie Steel

Women in a World of Men


Women in a World of Men [1]

I’m a woman in a man’s world.  I’m the president of a company in the financial services industry, which is notoriously known to be largely populated by men.  I walk into conferences and look into a sea of suits, wing tipped shoes, and distinguished silver hair.  My peers, our service providers, even applicants for new positions, are mostly male.  I’ve lived in this world for over twenty-five years, most of which were spent with two male business partners.  Everyone hears that women experience unequal treatment, unequal pay, and fewer positions in the C-Suite positions.  Personally, I’ve never felt treated unfairly, and no one has ever acted as though my voice didn’t count. 

At the same time I’ve become increasingly more curious about women’s equality and leadership.  Could this be sparked by my teenage daughters and looking at the changing world through their eyes?  Maybe I’m moved by my son’s individual initiative to make a presentation to his entire school encouraging girls to speak up with their thoughts and questions in class, based on his observation of their reluctance?  Am I’m becoming more reflective as I age?  I assume it’s all of these things, in addition to many more. 

So how does this happen?  I began a search for answers.  When I found that the University of Michigan’s Women’s Leadership Conference was discussing a national best seller titled “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, I consulted the readers’ reviews.  When I read that the author is a Harvard MBA graduate who began as a research assistant and is now COO of Facebook (and as a bonus has thirty-four pages of reference notes to support her findings), it seemed as though her book might be very helpful for my exploration.   

Interestingly, I learned that 76% of women don’t consider themselves feminists, and neither did Ms. Sandberg in her early career.  But when asked about social, political, and economic equality of the sexes (a fundamental objective of feminism), 65% of women consider themselves strong supporters.  So it seems, as in many situations, it’s all in how you ask the question. 

Leadership and Ambition

Are women encouraged to swing for the fences and shoot for the moon by everyone and everything around them?  Ms. Sandberg provides lots of examples highlighting that that is still not the case today.  Teachers, gender stereotypes, pop culture, and even parents can subtly encourage young girls not to strive as hard as they can.  Engrained in our culture are perceptions that women are consumed by their careers, which can cause young girls to think twice about selecting demanding careers that could make them sacrifice their personal life.  The author provides statistics illustrating that women underestimate themselves and judge their own performance as below par, whereas men judge their performance as better than it is.  Men reach for opportunities more quickly and take more initiative than women, both of which are conducive to success in the workforce. 

Women Hold Themselves Back

It was refreshing to learn that Ms. Sandberg believes that external factors are not the only blame game in town.  Unknowingly, we share some of the responsibility ourselves. Women’s above average capabilities are irrelevant if they are plagued by self doubt that provides internal barriers keeping us from getting in the game.  We remove ourselves from opportunity because of feelings like fear, anticipation, and self doubt.  Some women feel like frauds:  undeserving, guilty impostors who are afraid of being found out.  Eleanor Blayney, CFP, author of Women’s Worth, writes that being a women in a male dominated society necessarily plagues us with insecurities.  She said we feel we don’t know enough, we’re driven to do and be much more than we need to be. 

Many women seem to fail to put themselves forward and fail to notice and correct for this gap.  For example, research reveals that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the qualifications sought.  Men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements. In addition, women make a lot of small to big decisions leading up to career choices that are all about integrating family and career.  They make accommodations and sacrifices they believe are necessary to have a family.  Of all the ways that women hold themselves back, they make choices while working that end up negatively affecting them before they technically choose to “leave” the workforce.   

In support of equality of the sexes, here are a few statistics Ms. Sandberg highlights, indicating that we still have an equality problem in the 21st century. 

- Downside of Achievement:  success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.  Decades of social science studies confirm that we evaluate people based on stereotypes.  Men are seen as providers, decisive, and driven and women as caregivers, sensitive, and communal. 

- 43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers, or “off-ramping” for a period of time.

- Average annual earnings by women decline by 30% after two to three years, which is the average period that professional women off-ramp from the workforce.

- Only 74% of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and only 40% will return to full-time jobs.

- When husbands work fifty or more hours per week, wives with children are 44% more likely to quit their jobs than wives with children whose husbands work less, and many are highly educated.  Of Yale alumni who had reached their 40’s by 2000, only 56% of the women graduates remained in the workforce, compared to 90% of the men.  This exodus of highly educated women is a major contributor to the leadership gap.

- When a husband and wife are both employed full-time, the mother provides 40% more “child care” and about 30% more housework than the father.   Only about 9% of dual-earner marriages share housework, child care and breadwinning evenly. 

- Wives who engage in behaviors that demonstrate their reluctance for husbands handling parenting issues in their own way, do five more hours of family work per week than wives who take a more collaborative approach.  

Action Steps

Speaking for myself, I am all about personal growth, and I believe conceptual change only happens when clear and specific steps are identified.  So it was inspirational to reflect on Ms. Sandberg’s recommendations for women that are quite specific: 

- Have a long term dream……and an eighteen month plan.

- Set more personal goals for learning new skills in the next eighteen months.

Be more open to taking career risks.  The cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth.  In business, being risk adverse can result in stagnation. 

- Be comfortable talking about gender differences.

- Seek stretch assignments and new challenges.  Don’t worry if you do not currently have all of the skills needed for a new role.  This can be self-correcting, since so many abilities are acquired on the job.  

- Resist the “tiara syndrome.”  Don’t expect if you do your job well that someone will notice and place a tiara on your head.    

- Participate in women’s empowerment programs, internally or externallyFor example, Ms. Sandberg’s Lean In foundation has a format for Circles and Chapters to be created by anyone in communities throughout the nation. 

- Accept a mentorship if someone qualified selects you as a protégé….the strongest relationships spring from a real and earned connection felt by both sides, not because of an “ask” or a formal program.   

- Participate in formal or informal programs that assign sponsors, provide executive coaching, or allow shadowing members of the executive committee. 

- Support other women rather than engage in acts that detract from gender accomplishments and progress 

- Be grateful for what we have but be dissatisfied with the status quo.  Dissatisfaction spurs the charge for change. 

- Prioritize your efforts instead of striving to meet every demand placed on us at work and at home. 

- Be intentional. You can’t do it all, so decide what matters and what doesn’t. 

Focus your attention and make choices deliberately.  Set limits and stick to them, to make room for both life and career. 

- Offer and require transparent and honest communication, at work and at home, instead of operating quietly under assumptions and expectations.

Ms. Sandberg quoted President Debora Spar of Barnard College:

“Women have been subtly striving all our lives to prove that we have picked up the torch that feminism provided.  That we haven’t failed the mothers and grandmothers who made our ambitions possible.  And yet, in a deep and profound way, we are failing.  Because feminism wasn’t supposed to make us feel guilty, or prod us into constant competitions over who is raising children better, organizing more cooperative marriages, or getting less sleep.  It was supposed to make us free – to give us not only choices but the ability to make these choices without constantly feeling that we’d somehow gotten it wrong.”

Sheryl Sandberg wrote a great national best seller, and if you are interested in learning more about this topic I recommend it as a good read.  She encourages women to be ambitious, believe in our own abilities, face situations beyond one’s capabilities, and be persistent to have their voices heard.  Don’t pull back from your life’s tapestry……or, as Ms. Sandberg so succinctly puts it…… “Lean In”. 

[1] I am indebted to Sheryl Sandberg and her book titled “Lean In” for providing this reader with valuable insights and information about women in the workplace.