Sunday, April 7, 2013

Weighing in on women and leadership

There is a new book out called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I have not read the book; I may do so at some point. I did read the recent Time magazine article about her and her book; she graced the front cover of the magazine and the headline accompanying her picture read ‘Don’t hate her because she’s successful’. The article about her was well-written, but points out some of the anomalies that one will always find in the lives of the truly successful. I agree with much of what Ms. Sandberg says about being efficient and ‘ruthlessly prioritizing’ in terms of dealing with the many challenges the workplace throws at you; I disagree with her on other points. No matter. She is a good example of a successful woman leader in the business world, and more power to her. But she got to that place with help; as she says herself in the article, ‘I was hugely lucky, and that explains most of my success.......just like every man'. Indeed she was, to know some of the enlightened men she knows, who were not afraid to head-hunt her to specific jobs or use their clout to get her on board. And therein lies the rub, at least for me. You don’t get anywhere in life without support and help from others. Call them whatever you want—sponsors, mentors, advisers. You need them in order to rise in whatever hierarchical workplace or organization you find yourself. Unfortunately there are not enough of them to go around; even if there were, the current way of doing things focuses on finding the best candidate in any branch and grooming him (or her—perhaps less often) for a top position. I would argue that this perpetuates an elitist system; I am not necessarily opposed to that. However, the ramifications of this type of system are that not everyone can be a leader. Even those who are qualified to be leaders may find that they are pushed aside in favor of another; that happens to both qualified men and women. I know just as many men as women who were pushed aside or ignored in favor of ‘better’ candidates. You can of course question whether those other candidates are ‘better’. Much of the time it’s ‘who you know’, not ‘what you know’ that gets you ahead. And the 'who you know' is what comes from networking, which not all qualified candidates master.

Sandberg argues in the article that women prepare for other things in life—getting married and raising a family—and thus do not follow (or choose to not follow) opportunities to move vertically, thus narrowing their chances of getting closer to the boardroom. So that by the time they actually have children, they are not even in the running for consideration for a leadership position. When I was younger, I used to wonder about this too, except that my generation grew up thinking we could have it all, that we could find time for it all, and that we would have complete lives in the process. It was a myth and it was painful to let go of it. Men and women compromise and make choices all the time not to pursue specific avenues in order to make their lives work; we cannot have it all. But it is no surprise to me that self-help books about how to have it all are still best-sellers. We want to believe the hype. Reality is something else altogether.

That is one consideration. The other considerations have to do with how women are treated in the workforce. I know many women who followed the opportunities that came their way, only to encounter unenlightened male leaders who held them down, ignored them, or pushed them aside in favor of male candidates. Gender bias is nothing new. I remember an interesting story reported in the media from a few years ago about a Swedish man who held a high position in a personnel department in a big company. He admitted that he tossed most of the resumes from female applicants into the waste basket, and had done so for most of his work life. He was married with a family. When he reached middle-age, it suddenly dawned on him that his daughter, who was now in her early twenties and entering the workforce, might encounter the same type of treatment that he had been dishing out to other women for years. Bing—a light went on in his head, and he became an enlightened man, but only when he understood that if his daughter encountered his type of behavior in her own attempts to rise in her career, that it would harm her chances of succeeding in the work world. I have tried to find the story online but failed. But the long-term effects of this type of behavior may be what we may be seeing now in the business world, as Ms. Sandberg points out—many women assume that they will only come so far and no further, so they reach a certain level and stop there. They resign themselves to (without necessarily accepting it) the (often covert) gender bias in the work world in order to be able to do their work well and to have some modicum of peace in their lives. It is very stressful to try to fight or to change unfairness; more power to those who try. It is my contention that change comes via example, and that perhaps it is best to start small. The only way to get women interested in taking leadership positions is to set an example for them as a woman leader; if you actually maneuver your way through the system and manage to get to the top, you should mentor and/or sponsor other women. Women should be helping other women at the top levels; I haven’t seen much of this, unfortunately, at least in academia.

But perhaps there are other aspects that must be considered in these discussions. Perhaps younger women (and men) are re-evaluating what they want out of life, searching for new definitions of success, and looking for ways to live simpler, less stressful lives. Because that is one thing I noticed in the article about Sandberg; she goes home each day from Facebook (where she works) at 5:30 pm to be with her family—to eat dinner and such—and then returns to the office later that evening. This is simply not possible for most employees, many of whom commute long distances to and from work; and even if it was, is it desirable? There are so many articles about employees who must be constantly available to their workplaces via computer and smart phones. Aren’t they allowed to have a life outside of work, whether or not they have families? If you are single, you also need down-time from work. Are you a better employee if you are always working? Is it so important to be available 24/7? I think the answer is no, but it is unpopular to say so. 

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