Lean In: Women are their own Worst Enemy in Business

by · May 7, 201318 comments

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is starting an important movement with her book Lean In and online community LeanIn.org The premise is that there is a vast inequality of women in senior positions in the workforce and she is committed to opening the conversation about why. In her Ted talk, Sandberg argues that “women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world.” In corporate, she mentions C-level jobs held by women are 15-16% and have remained flat since 2002.

Personally, I’ve always struggled with men vs. women debates on equality in the workplace. It always seems to turn into a he vs. she debate that I find to be counterproductive. However, the recent buzz around Sandberg’s book led me to listen to her Ted talk and I’ve since ordered the book. After review, I was presently surprised, but I think there was one critical missing element to her analysis. First, let’s take a look at her key points.

Sit at the Table

Sandberg argues that women aren’t taking their seat at the table. She tells the story of being at a pitch with a large investment group and watching the women sit around the edge of the room. It’s as if women wait for permission to take a chair around the table. Why is that? In another story, Sandberg tells the story of three college students, herself, a female friend, and a young gentleman who all finished an assignment for a class. Both women wished they had done more on the assignment after significant research and analysis, while the young man stated he got the highest grade in the class. She argues that, “women systematically underestimate their own abilities” which may be one factor in their level of achievement. She goes on to say that, “women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce” citing that “only 7% of women negotiate their starting salary.” When women achieve success they “attribute success to external factors” while “men attribute it to themselves.” It’s relevant to pursue a discussion around why women attribute help from others as the reason for their success, while men readily take credit. This leaves room for the argument that women have a confidence problem. She rounds out the story with an anecdote about a speech she did at Facebook, where a woman told her afterwards that she needs to “keep her hand up”. Sheryl had agreed to take two questions from the audience; after the second question was asked, the woman put her hand down.  Sheryl went on to answer three more questions. Have you ever noticed that women are the first to put their hands down when taking questions after a speech at a conference? I hadn’t, but I’ll be paying attention next time.

There certainly could be a great discussion about women finally taking their seat at the table.

Make Your Partner a REAL Partner

It is important that we start sharing responsibility in the household equally

The other area Sandberg delves into is equality in the home. She cites a statistic that says, “if a woman and a man work full-time and have a child, the woman does 2x the housework and 3x the child care.” She talks about the benefits of splitting home responsibilities in a variety of areas, perhaps one of the most important being the impact on a healthy sex life and half the divorce rate. Male or female, we are leading busy lives. It is important that we start sharing responsibility in the household equally. Fortunately, my husband is more than an equal partner. In fact, he could likely argue that I’m not doing my 50% as we’ve been building our business. I’ve outsourced housecleaning, yard work and other items as we try to find balance, especially where we have to choose between more time with the children and household duties. We’ve chosen to spend that time with our kids, but we are in a position where we can make that choice. I remember the days when we couldn’t, and it felt like the list of household needs never ended. My stress level rises just thinking about it, so I can imagine the pressure women have when their partner isn’t a REAL partner in the household.

There is certainly room for discussion on how women and men can create an equal partnership at home, too.

Don’t Leave Before You Leave

Women should be putting their foot on the gas pedal of their careers up until the very last day before they leave a company

The last area Sandberg explores is how women plan too early and start making decisions before they need to be made. She talks about how we start planning for when we are going to leave a job far before it’s time to leave. Specific areas she mentions are planning for a pregnancy. Sandberg talks about how women start to “lean back” to make room for a new baby in their lives and possibly sacrifice promotions 2 to 3 years BEFORE they are even pregnant or in one story, before the woman even had a boyfriend. She argues that women should be putting their foot on the gas pedal of their careers up until the very last day before they leave a company. The minute we start “leaning back” we begin the process of sabotaging our future success. We could take that promotion we’ve been working hard to achieve and decide how we want to proceed at the point when we are actually going on maternity leave, not 2 years before.

It’s a valid point and one I’ve definitely seen in the workplace. This is certainly another area worth having a conversation about.

Sandberg states that this inequality is something that is unlikely to change in our generation, but it’s something we can hope to reverse for our children and grandchildren’s generation which is why the work she is doing with Lean In is so important.

Stop Stabbing Each Other in the Back

Success and likeability are strongly correlated for men and negatively correlated for women

There’s one area that Sandberg doesn’t mention that I think is even more important that all of the other three combined; women are their own worst enemies.

I’ve worked with a lot of women in my career. It would be tough to argue that I ever leaned back or didn’t take my seat at the table. I am a career woman and I’ve always stood up for myself in the workplace. In my opinion, I always attempted to handle myself with grace despite my tenacious drive to succeed. I never knowingly stepped on someone else’s success in order to achieve my own. I have always prided myself on viewing the success of others as a testament to my own achievement, rather than taking credit for others success. I owned my own success through the empowerment of others. I befriended people at all levels of the organization. I was the person who was invited to the executive happy hour and the “employee” happy hour. This is something I was immensely proud of. All of that is said, not toot my own horn, but really just to say, I wasn’t a head strong b*tch in the work place.

However, that didn’t stop me from experiencing the negativity from women around me. I watched as women talked behind each other’s backs, told lies about each other to senior management, and would go as far as to discredit each other for the sake of themselves in the eyes of management. It was disgusting. I saw women be catty, overly emotional, two-faced, and manipulative all to tear another woman down and sabotage her success. Women were unbearably jealous of the success of other women. Sandberg alludes to this when she says, “success and likeability are strongly correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” There were a couple of times I saw similar actions from men in the workplace, but it was far more common amongst my female colleagues.

So I’d argue that before we blame society or men for holding women back, it’s time to take a tough look in the mirror. I’d argue that one of women’s worst enemies in corporate success is other women. If we want to have a meaningful discussion about something that is in our control and something that we CAN impact in our lifetime, let’s talk about letting go of the jealous rage and start supporting each other. Let’s make a conscious decision to be a cheerleader for other women, to stand up and be our greatest advocates, to make a difference TOGETHER, not in spite of one another.

Now that’s a conversation we can have NOW that will have an immediate impact. Let’s talk about the others and make progress for our future generations, but let’s do something that will make a difference today, at the same time.

What do you think? Do you find yourself succumbing to the factors Sandberg mentions? Have you experienced the dismantling wrath of another woman or group of women? What do you think is holding women back from C-level positions in the workplace? Leave a comment and let’s have a healthy conversation.

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About Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Deanne

    Loved this, Nichole! I saw Sheryl Sandberg on 60 Minutes a few months ago but have not read her book yet. Now I’m thinking I may need to. I really enjoyed your comments and perspective. Thanks for your candor.

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Deanne – Thanks so much for commenting. I’m super excited to dive into the book to hear more behind her perspective, but found the Ted talk to be very interesting. :-) It’s an area that definitely got me thinking, that’s for sure!

  • http://www.yepi6.org/ yepi6

    thank your sharing, I am also very interested in gender equality is still present. I respect women and almost without any discrimination to them.

    • http://www.boom-online.co.uk/ Amy Fowler

      *Almost? Brilliant!

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    I am also very interested in this issue, the article gave me more understanding, thank you.

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    I appreciate everything you probably did about this and i’m very impressed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BernardDana Dana Bernard

    Such a great book. Especially the information on the Heidi Howard study – successful women are perceived differently.

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    Your content is valid and informative in my personal opinion. yx

  • Anna Pham

    This is so true Nicole, women are definitely their worst enemies, since I have too many complaints and stories about how women struggle at the workplace due to the negative comments and actions by other women. Love your post, thanks for sharing.

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  • Cameron B

    Sandberg really should have gone the whole distance and mentioned your point about women’s tendencies to stab each other in the back. That fact is in the workplace, women quite often are indeed their own worst enemies. If men are inclined to promote men than why aren’t women in leadership positions making more of an effort to nurture and groom other talented women? I’m assuming it has a lot to do with the points re. cattiness and emotional jealousy that you mentioned above. In addition, research has show time and time again that the majority of workers – especially women, prefer male managers. That’s not to say women don’t make great managers but if female leaders have a tendency to prefer promoting men and women in general prefer working with men and male managers then it’s hard to blame the lack of women at the top purely on men holding women back.

    • Sarah

      I think this is an astute insight. My favorite boss was actually a woman, so I can’t empirically agree with the assertion that women prefer male superiors. However, most people in the workforce have probably had more exposure to male leaders, increasing the likelihood that one or more may have had a dramatic impact on them and influenced their perceived preference. Women like Sandberg with controversial ideas are the new age feminists and thinkers that will continue to drive professional gender equality.
      – Sarah @ flexDEAL

  • Exactly Right

    the very high maintenance ones are the worst, especially the ones that think they are all that.

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    I am also very interested in this issue, the article gave me more understanding, thank you.

  • Alaya

    Cameron B has it right – stop stabbing each other in the back and start supporting and promoting each other like men do; I came across a book under a similar title “Why Women are Their Own Worst Enemies” that has an extremely similar message to this article but is focused less on business and more on our personal lives. Might be worth checking out; but the key of both messages is understanding that we are often more responsible for holding ourselves back even though we often blame men, society or other outside influencers.

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  • XXAcademic

    Yup, senior women have always been much worse to me than senior men. Senior men are often supporters. Senior women never are.