The Sexes April 2013

Why Isn't Better Education Giving Women More Power?

The false egalitarian promise of advanced degrees
Walter Newton

In her new book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recounts a warning she delivered to Harvard Business School students in 2011. “About one-third of the women in this audience will be working full-time” in 15 years, she told them. “And almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to.”

Surveying the stubborn gender inequalities of the early-21st-century workplace, Sandberg has written what might best be described as a cross between a feminist treatise and an airport business book, in which she advocates for structural changes to make corporate America more hospitable to women—particularly mothers. She also issues a bracing call for women to propel themselves ever higher, take more risks, speak up, negotiate, and pull a seat up to the table. But for all the persuasive parts of her argument, a vexing contradiction remains mostly unaddressed. In one important arena, women have already, to borrow Sandberg’s phrase, been aggressively leaning in: school. Women surpassed men as a percentage of college students in the late 1980s, and by 2009 had become the majority of master’s-degree students and doctoral candidates. The majority of Americans older than 25 with college degrees are, today, women. Yet just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. So why hasn’t women’s success in the academy led them to more leadership positions in the work world?

Forty years ago, Title IX mandated equality for women. But it did so only in schools. In the decades since Congress passed this law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education, women have flocked to the ivory tower. There, enforced equal standing is coupled with criteria for success that are transparent, and that reward industriousness. Many parts of the work world, by comparison, are still plagued by sexism, or reward a particular sort of self-promotion that many women shy away from. Studies have repeatedly shown that women get more criticism and less praise in the workplace than men do. They are offered lower starting salaries, and are judged more negatively by prospective employers than are men with identical backgrounds. And unlike in school, the burden of fighting discrimination rests almost entirely on an individual, who must initiate grievance procedures against her boss.

Just as important, the behaviors that school rewards—studying, careful preparation, patient climbing from one level to the next—seem to give women an advantage academically, judging from the fact that they get higher grades in college than men do. Yet these behaviors aren’t necessarily so helpful in the workplace. Out in the work world, people hire and promote based on personality as much as on formal qualifications, and very often networking can trump grinding away. As Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr put it in an article on the Harvard Business Review’s Web site earlier this year, “The very skills that propel women to the top of the class in school are earning us middle-of the-pack marks in the workplace.”

It can take young women years to realize that the professional world is less of a meritocracy than the school world, and that the strategies that lead to success in one realm may not be enough to master the other. In the meantime, many suffer from what Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, the founders of Negotiating Women Inc., a firm that coaches women in leadership skills, call “tiara syndrome”—the belief that if they “keep doing their job well, someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.” This tends not to happen.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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