I’ve read and heard a lot about women and success lately, most recently in the form of a TED video by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. She talks about the lack of women in business leadership, and suggests that women could be making better headway in the corporate arena if they change some key behaviors and make a concerted effort to get in the game. I agree, but think it might go even deeper than that.
The statistics are staggering and still pretty pathetic when it comes to the number of women in power and leadership roles, in executive and corporate positions, salary discrepancies and the like. It’s easy to blame the ‘glass ceiling’ and the ‘old boys club’ but when it comes right down to it, it’s possible that we women might just be resisting our own corporate success.
Women should be shattering that ceiling and crashing those clubs. In fact, a post on Daily Worth cites a 2010 economic committee report which found that companies with women promoted to senior positions consistently outperform their competition. It goes on to highlight the proven success in the corporate arena of collaboration, team-building and mentoring, skills that women naturally tend to use and excel at. We should be leading the C-suite charge and taking the business world by storm. Instead, we seem to be consistently undermining our own efforts and thwarting our own potential success at every juncture.
Sandberg suggests that women tend to take themselves out of the game when it comes to business advancement and promotion. She notes some disturbing patterns and trends and then raises some great questions: Why don’t women pursue goals as actively as their male counterparts? Why do we tend to defer to spouses when it comes to domestic situations? Why do women often capitulate or back off in business settings? Are we being ‘too nice’?
There are probably as many reasons for it as there are women. After all, success is actually a very personal and subjective term. Being successful means different things to different people. However, one common denominator seems to be happiness in some form, and regardless of the amount of money you make or titles you earn or values you uphold, it’s pretty hard to be happy if you think that no one likes you!
Whether they choose to work inside or outside the home, women often seem to get the short end of the judgment stick, and unfortunately, we women are often the worst offenders when it comes to bashing our own. Have you ever commented on or criticized the ‘soccer moms’ and ‘helicopter moms’ for not being ambitious enough, or the ‘working moms’ for not being involved enough, or complained that the ‘bitchy boss’ needs to get…a life? Women need to support each other irrespective of priorities and choices instead of perpetuating negative and counterproductive stereotypes.
In business, successful men are typically seen as confident and assertive, whereas successful women are more often than not considered aggressive and cold-hearted. The stereotype of the ‘Bitchy Boss’ stubbornly persists and can be found all around us – it’s in movies, magazines, photos, story lines, even in our conversations. So why on earth would any girl or woman ever want to aspire to be ‘successful’ in business if it means being seen as cold and hard, shunned and resented by everyone around her?
Historically, success in the business world has also represented sacrifice, most often at the expense of family and relationships. As a woman, it is often considered selfish to actively pursue work-related goals, but ironically, men are seen as ‘go-getters’ and good providers. Gasp, what kind of woman/mother would ever put her work or self ahead of the needs of her family?! She might be successful but at what price?
Guilt can a pretty strong motivator, especially when it plays on our existing doubts or insecurities. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t experience a little self-doubt every now and then. People tend to put others down to feel good about themselves and to rationalize their own choices. It takes a very confident and self-assured woman to overcome that kind of guilt, ignore societal prejudice and judgment and feel secure in the knowledge that she is living according to her own values and priorities.
As Sandberg suggests, maybe women need to be more assertive in pursing promotions, more confident in their abilities and in presenting their ideas, more diligent about sharing domestic responsibilities. These are positive key behaviors that will serve us well no matter what we choose to do. Maybe as a society we should judge a little less and accept a little more.
But maybe the apparent lack of progress with women and corporate success is not really about insecurity or refusing to step up to the table. Maybe it’s a little more complicated than that. Maybe it’s about rejecting the notion that a powerful, successful business woman must, by definition, also be a bitch. Maybe it’s about an unwillingness to compromise priorities or to sacrifice family to fit some arbitrary definition of what it means to be successful. Maybe women DO want it all and are no longer willing to accept less.
Maybe, just maybe, women are collectively rejecting an antiquated industrial corporate model and are refusing to do business in the manner that its always been done. A recent analysis reports that the number of women-owned businesses has increased by 50% over the last decade and a half. Company size and revenues have not increased but maybe that’s by choice and design. Maybe it’s possible that progress via the corporate ladder has slowed because women have embraced the spirit of the Gen-Y Millennials and are actually in the process of redefining success and rewriting the rules to do business on our own terms.
Maybe women are realizing that we can have it all. It just might look and feel a little different than what our grandmothers, mothers, aunts or even we ever imagined!
One thing is for sure though – it’s a lot easier and faster to succeed if you are the one writing the rules. We do need strong, confident and capable women in corporate-level and Board positions. Not to increase statistics or reflect equal representation or even to just show ’em all that women are just as able as men. Women need to be an integral part of making the decisions and policies that shape the way business can be done and to redefine success.
Author Note: Check out the TED video by Sheryl Sandberg and share your comments to let us know what you think we can do to help redefine the rules and roles of women leaders.
- Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says we blew it, girls (cbsnews.com)
- Women getting down to business (theage.com.au)
- Boys-Only Boards: Where Women Aren’t at the Top (msnbc.msn.com)
- Recent advances and current challenges of women in business (elbailedevenus.wordpress.com)
- Women: Equality is up to You (bigthink.com)