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Getting women to the top

In a lot of ways, we’re incredibly lucky. We’ve grown up in a time when it feels perfectly reasonable to believe, as young women, that the world is our oyster. We don’t have the same restrictions as previous generations of women did. We can have all the same high-powered jobs as men can; we know we’re just as smart, and they know it now too. Studies show that we’re still not quite earning equal pay, but we are certainly making huge strides towards gender equality in the workplace.

I recently watched a strikingly eloquent speech by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, on TED.com that addressed this very issue. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about the glass ceiling before; we all have, to the extent that it can seem redundant. But Sandberg’s talk struck me differently. Maybe it’s because of her impeccable poise and the aura of intelligence that just seems to surround some people, but for whatever reason, her message really got through to me.  And instead of simply bemoaning the lack of female leaders in the world, she was actually suggesting some very sensible things women can do to start to change this trend.

These are the facts: worldwide, women make up only 13% of people in parliament. Of 190 heads of state, only 9 are female. In the corporate sector, women hold only 15-16% of C-level and board positions, and even in the non-profit world just 20% of senior positions belong to females.

Sandberg suggests that part of the reason so few women are making it to the top is that there is still pressure to choose between professional success and having a family. Men don’t face this pressure to the same extent- a study of married senior managers in the US showed that two thirds of the married men in senior roles had children, while only one third of married women did. The trend still seems to be that women are dropping out of the workforce (or remaining in the workforce, but dropping out of the race towards promotions and higher positions) when they decide to have children.

And Sandberg says that’s perfectly fine if that’s what makes you happy- but that it shouldn’t feel like you have no choice. If you do want to strive for both professional success and a fulfilling family life, there are three main messages we should give to ourselves, our friends, and our daughters.

1. Sit at the table, not the side of the room. By this, she means that women need to push themselves to the front more if they want to succeed in the professional world. For whatever reason, women tend to underestimate their own abilities, and are too quick to attribute their achievements to external factors, in a way that men do not. So we need to practise standing up for ourselves, pushing ourselves to the front, and owning our success. It’s hard, because there’s a strange paradox where men’s likability tends to increase the more successful they are, while women’s likability decreases. There are different expectations for how women are supposed to behave. But we have to somehow be more assertive.

2. Make your partner a real partner. If you’re married or live with a man, and especially if you have children, you should run the household as equals. Although men have stepped up their household duties significantly, the statistics still show that if a man and a woman living together both work full time and have a child, the woman does twice amount of housework and three times amount of childcare. Only if you even out the responsibilities at home can you both reach your full potential at work.

3. Don’t leave before you leave. Too often, women pull back from work as soon as they even start thinking about maybe possibly having a baby one day in the near future. Before they’re even pregnant or even have a partner, they stop pushing themselves forward or looking for promotions, with the idea that if they do decide to have a baby, they will need to make room for it. Sandberg advises not to make those decisions until the time comes. If it does, and you do decide to leave work completely, that’s fine. But if you want to come back after having a baby, and you’ve stopped looking for opportunities years ago, you might find yourself stuck and bored.

These are all very simple messages, but sharing them in such a clear and compelling way is so valuable- for young girls, for women and for men. So I applaud Sandberg and I wholeheartedly encourage anyone and everyone to listen to the speech, no matter what your age, gender, or ambitions.

2 thoughts on “Getting women to the top

  1. I love this post! You’re right, people talk about the glass ceiling so often and we talk about how this means that we need a cultural shift. This is true, but how does that cultural shift occur? Or, at least, how can we individually do well without having to wait for the shift? I like it when people offer solutions for problems which seem to be too big to solve, it makes me feel better about how the world is going :)

  2. This has really struck me, but only just now. I did read it a few days ago, but after having a rather stupid argument with someone who was a close friend, I took the moment to evaluate what I was being accused of and how untrue it is. I am not a snob, I simply strive for excellence as a reflection of the work I’ve put into the amazing opportunities I’ve had in life so far.

    Thank-you so much!

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