The Ambition Gap - Leaning In

I may be a little late to the game, but I am finally reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, and right from the introduction I can understand why it caused such a stir when it came out in 2012. Sandberg addresses the issue of why there are relatively few women in leadership roles, and ways that women have held themselves back. Women earn more than 57% of undergraduate degrees and 60% of masters degrees, and yet hold less than 14% of C level positions. I always assumed that as women disproportionately fill the ranks of entry level positions, there would be a proportional increase of women filling senior level positions as well. Apparently this is not the case. “The exodus of highly educated women is a major contributor to the leadership gap.”

Sandberg shares a story about a kindergarten class where the students were asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Several of the boys wanted to be president, but none of the girls did. This disparity continues into middle school, where more boys than girls aspire to leadership roles in future careers. 36% of men want to reach the C-suite and only 18% of women. Why so few? If the question were ever posed to me I would honestly say that rising to the C-levels has never been of any interest, and I think Sandberg is right to ask why.

Too much Barbie or not enough Hillary?

Sandberg is quick to link the relative derth of women in leadership roles on the messages of obedience and passivity we instill in girls and the general indulgence of opposite traits in boys (“boys will be boys”). “Gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophesies.” While gender stereotypes have held women back in the past, today the difference is in their perceived options, not in perceived abilities. When the kindergarten-ers in Sandberg’s story were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up they looked to the immediate role models around them. Call it a lack of imagination about one’s future career, rather than a lack of ambition.

She has recently begun a campaign to ban the word “bossy”, and while words have the power to shape our values, it is a passive approach to solving the problem. Boys don’t show a propensity towards leadership in middle-school any more than girls show a propensity towards secretarial work. Sandberg’s “Lean In” project comes closer to directly addressing the issue. She realizes that you can’t be what you can’t see”, and works to raise the profiles of powerful women. When it becomes normal to have female leaders, I am sure we will find more girls expressing ambition. Likewise, when it becomes normal for men to share equally in care-giving, boys will begin making different choices.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg