Are women holding themselves back?

03:16, Jun 18 2013
Sheryl Sandberg
POWER PLAY: Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg wants to encourage more women into positions of power.

It's a childhood scene that will be familiar to many: a young girl attempts to organise her fellow birthday party-goers into a performance for the attending grown-ups, only to be taken aside and chastised for being "too bossy".

That little girl grew up to be Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook. And such criticism of confident young girls as "bossy" or "pushy", while male peers who act the same way are praised as "outgoing" or "authoritative", is one of the main thrusts of Sandberg's ambitious new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which highlights the ways in which women are socialised and conditioned to pull back from success.

"Those are the things I did," she says, nodding, with a nostalgic if bittersweet laugh. "I put on plays, I organised birthday parties."

Sandberg grew up in North Miami Beach, Florida. The eldest of three children, Sandberg's higher-education experience was dotted with honours: at Harvard College she was the top graduating student in economics, and at Harvard Business School she earned her 1995 MBA with highest distinction.

Today, at 43, she is a 2012 Time magazine "100 Most Influential People in the World" listee who has clocked regular appearances in Fortune magazine's "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" and Forbes magazine's "100 Most Powerful Women" features. On paper, she's intimidating. In person, Sandberg is gently forthright, her tone friendly and thoughtful, and is fond of trailing off sentences with an airy rhetorical question.

I've come with other media to speak with Sandberg at Facebook's Californian HQ at Palo Alto ahead of her book's release. Wearing a chic black-and-white dress, and stopping often to slug Diet Coke from a giant reusable drink cup, Sandberg paces the room while addressing the problems holding back women in the workforce. Many of them - and this is where it gets controversial - are self-perpetuating: a lack of ambition, the desire to be liked rather than respected, a reticence to "sit at the table", as she puts it.


Sandberg makes the devastating point in Lean In that men are very adept at creating their own success, and studies back her up. A 2011 report by Europe's Institute of Leadership and Management found that only 31 per cent of male managers would admit self-doubt to others, compared to half of their female equivalents.

Men will often take opportunities that they are not totally qualified for, whereas women will wait until they feel completely qualified, often missing out in the meantime. (Women tend to apply for jobs only when they feel they have 100 per cent of the selection criteria covered; men are happy to take a punt with 60 per cent.) Men constantly agitate for promotion, whereas women passively await accolades and long for Prince Charming-like mentors to "discover them" - to such an extent that this behaviour is known as "tiara syndrome", according to Sandberg. "Someone's gonna just notice how great you are? Not gonna happen," she says. "You're going to have to create this yourself."

Yet, when women are upfront about their successes, they are less likely to be admired for it. A 2003 Columbia Business School study presented half a group of students with the real-life story of Heidi Roizen, a successful entrepreneur; it included statements like "outgoing personality ... and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector". The other half of the students were then presented with the same work history, only with "Heidi" switched to "Howard". When both groups were asked who they'd like to work with, Howard was considered vastly more appealing than Heidi, who the students felt would not be "the type of person you would want to hire or work for". Take-home message: successful, ambitious women are not likeable.

Sandberg is not pulling the rug out from underneath the sisterhood. She is, instead, merely stating the facts - and the facts are grim.

A 2012 survey, conducted by Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and researcher Deborah Bell, found that despite being better educated than their male counterparts, New Zealand women are overwhelmingly relegated to non-executive director roles (90 per cent compared to 42 per cent of men).

The NZX50 has a mere handful of women who are board chairs, yet  60 per cent of women surveyed had an advanced degree compared with 41 per cent of men.

Whether they are concerned at being seen as overly ambitious or they see it as unseemly to boast, women frequently undersell their success.

Despite her achievements and A-type personality, Sandberg knows all about the phenomenon of women holding themselves back. In 2011, when Forbes put her at No. 5 in their "Most Powerful Women" list, Sandberg begged co-workers and friends to remove links to it from their social-media feeds, and shooshed anyone who tried to congratulate her. It took a reprimand from her long-time assistant to force her to be less reticent about accepting praise. "Stop - you're showing everyone how uncomfortable you are. When they say congratulations, start saying 'Thank you' and that's it,'' the assistant told Sandberg.

"I'm quite certain that had a man been on that list, he wouldn't have spent his week wandering around trying to get all the posts down," Sandberg says with a rueful laugh. "We are not comfortable with power as women."

When Sandberg urges women to "sit at the table", she means it - and she means it to apply to women at all levels of the workforce, not just for high-flying corporate executives like herself. "These differences in self-confidence matter and they play out every single day. When you go to a meeting, watch where people sit in a conference room. And what you will find is that more men will sit at the centre of the table, more men will sit at the table and more men will sit at the front of the room, whereas more women will sit on the side or not at the table [at all, but] in the back."

The idea that women might, in turn, be responsible for their lack of success could be seen as a red rag to the feminist movement - despite the fact Sandberg identifies her book as "a feminist manifesto". But she wants the book to start a discussion.

"I want this to be a real conversation, but I want this to be action," she says adamantly. "I want the next time someone's in a [performance] review, and someone says, 'She's too aggressive', to take a pause and think about what that means."

That Sandberg - a mother of two children - advocates for women to pursue family as well as professional success makes it easy to see Lean In as a variation on that modern conundrum: can women have it all?

Sandberg - who, incidentally, thinks the "having it all" debate is "the worst thing that ever happened to women" - considers revolutionising childcare and paid maternity leave of vital importance. "We thought we changed the workforce, because we said it was going to be equal opportunity, but we didn't change the responsibilities in the home or address these penalties that women face. So we didn't really change [either], but because we thought we did, we're surprised. Our revolution has stalled; 10 years of no progress for women at the top of any industry in the world is a very serious problem."

Like newly appointed Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer, who famously only took two weeks' leave after giving birth, Sandberg has faced criticism for discussing these issues from a privileged viewpoint. The argument runs that it's very easy for Sandberg to campaign for working mothers, as she has access to nannies and domestic help that women in the lower rungs of business could only dream of.

But surely it would be worse if these powerful women didn't talk about the realities of being working mothers at all? Is this just another illustration of the ways in which women are - as Sandberg says in Lean In - damned if they do and doomed if they don't? "Most working women have neither the incomes nor the support these women enjoy," says Summers. "But at least if women at the top are speaking out for other women, and are calling for women's equality, their voices might be useful. We just should not make the mistake of thinking that their success will necessarily 'trickle down'."

The criticism of Sandberg for talking about these issues from such a platform speaks to a near-universal problem society has with women in power. "Real change will come when powerful women are less of an exception," Sandberg writes in Lean In. "It is easy to dislike senior women because there are so few."

Of course, working women who seek to broaden their achievements are often forced to work within a business model that is geared towards the needs of men: longer working hours and no consideration of the time needed to help raise a family. Indeed, the aforementioned ABS report illustrates that point clearly: it found that a woman working full-time spends, on average, six hours and 39 minutes each day taking care of children, whereas her male equivalent spends three hours and 43 minutes actively parenting.

Sandberg has an answer for that, too. "I wanted it to be a book for men as well as women," she says. "It's for all of us to try to work on these things together. It's not going to happen if we don't."


Sheryl Sandberg shares some of her key points.

Sit at the table. Don't take a backseat in the work environment; be more confident that you have the same right to be there as male counterparts, and grab opportunities even if you're not sure you are qualified.

Don't get hung up on being liked. Successful women are considered pushy, but don't hold back from pursuing success; own your achievements publicly.

It's a jungle gym, not a ladder. Accepting roles in different areas and challenging yourself can lead to even greater success than pursuing the path you had planned.

Are you my mentor? Don't sit and wait for Prince Charming to appear; pursue the excellence that will make mentors see your potential and want to help you achieve it.

Make your partner a real partner. Make sure your partner is supportive of your goals and dreams, and agree on a fair division of parenting.

Don't leave before you leave. Even if you've made the decision to have children, keep moving forward in the workplace.

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (WH Allen) by is out on March 18.

- Daily Life