Ambitious young men believe that they are "awesome." Their female peers, says Facebook's COO in a new profile, need to do the same.
Women first made up half of graduating college seniors decades ago, yet they only hold about 15 percent of top corporate positions, a number that has not improved since 2002. Big tech companies Twitter, Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon all have exactly zero female directors on their boards. Even though 2010 marked the first time ever that women held a majority of the nation's jobs (as Hanna Rosin describes in her much-discussed Atlantic piece), they are not rising to the very top.
In this week's New Yorker, Ken Auletta profiles one woman who has -- Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who is rumored to be on the "short list" for replacing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner should he step down. In the piece and in two widely viewed recent speeches, Sandberg says that women must do their part to correct the imbalance. Her call to young women: Step up your game. Or, as she puts it, "Lean in."
In a December talk cited by Auletta, Sandberg offers three pieces of advice: First, "sit at the table." Women, Sandberg says, "systematically underestimate their own abilities." They don't believe they deserve their success, attributing it to luck, help from others, or hard work. High-achieving men, in contrast, believe that they are "awesome." Women need to take credit for their accomplishments and assert themselves with confidence.
Second, "make your partner a real partner." Sandberg says she is convinced that "we have made more progress in the workforce than we have in the home." Among heterosexual couples in which both partners work full time, women do twice as much housework and three times as much childcare as their spouses. For women to achieve more at work, their partners must do more at home.
Third, "don't leave before you leave." This gets to the heart of why women don't achieve more, in Sandberg's diagnosis. Long before women begin to think about having children, before they even have a partner, women begin diminishing their career aspirations in anticipation of the day when they will need a better "work-life balance" (something, Sandberg laments, that is only discussed at women's conferences). As a result, women stop seeking opportunities and achieve less early in their careers. Later in life, with less exciting options available to them at work, they choose to stay home and rear children. "Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave," Sandberg says.
Auletta points to critics who argue that Sandberg is not your typical working mother and doesn't understand that challenges faced by moms with fewer resources at their beck and call. But Sandberg is not speaking to all women. Her advice is meant for a narrow slice of the population: elite, well-educated women who are potential future CEOs and presidents.
A more "sweeping" critique, Auletta notes, comes from academics and experts in women leadership who charge that fixing inequality requires more than women bucking up. These critics argue that women are disadvantaged structurally -- such as by the lack of executives who will "sponsor" them and bring them up in rank -- not just by their own lack of confidence.
But Sandberg doesn't dispute that structural challenges exist. Rather, she has chosen to focus her energy on encouraging ambitious women to change what is within their power. As she told Barnard 's 2011 graduating class, of course there will be barriers to your success, but make those barriers "be external, not internal."