Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and tireless crusader for women in leadership, lamented the lack of women in attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos in late January. Although the event’s organizers attempted to encourage women’s attendance by giving companies an extra slot (five instead of four), most companies still only used four of their slots as not enough women could pass the conference’s rigorous seniority requirements. As a result, only 17 percent of the conference delegates were women.
While there, Sandberg participated in a session titled Women in Economic Decision-Making, where she anecdotally traced women’s leadership handicap back to their roots, as marketers still push gender stereotypical items like onesies that say, “Smart Like Daddy” and “Pretty Like Mommy.” Sandberg deduced that women’s obstacles to being taken seriously start in infancy, and our society’s ingrained bias against women as leaders isn’t improving.
Sandberg says that women who lead are still seen as aggressive and unlikable, while men are perceived as good leaders. Her comparison brings to mind the famous case study example where an MBA class was given identical resumes, but one had a man’s name (Howard), while the other had a woman’s (Heidi), and the class reaction to each was widely different. Both male and female students embraced the male resume, saying it was someone they would be friendly with, while they felt the same resume for a woman came across as aggressive and off-putting.
For those students who thought the protagonist was a woman: ‘The more aggressive they thought she was, the more they hated her,’ … Students said they found Heidi less humble and more power hungry and self-promoting than Howard.
Even though studies show that adding women to corporate boards improves company financial performance, the U.S. numbers have not changed much in the past decade. In August 2012, Forbes reported that only 4 percent of the nation’s largest companies are run by women (20 in total), and “that’s a record.” Also, more than half (11) got the job between 2011 and 2012. Although U.S. corporate board membership is almost stagnant, does the uptick in female CEOs being named to the top job indicate a trend?
Maybe, but it doesn’t mean much if attitudes toward women in leadership continue to be negative. In addition to women in leadership being liked less, there is also the perception that women who are forceful are “too emotional,” whereas men are seen as passionate and committed. Even though the numbers show that the majority of college graduates and vast majority of consumers are women, many large companies are not rushing to change their c-suite gender balance.
What will galvanize change at the top?
Some of the conversation in Davos touched on the idea of quotas, something that Europe thought seriously about, but has not formally implemented. The original goal was to populate 40 percent of board seats with women. Evidently, just the threat was enough to move the needle a bit there as the number of women on European boards increased from 13.7 percent to 15.8 percent in just one year. Australia has also recently proposed that companies over 100 employees have to report on the number of women they have in leadership positions.
Although it doesn’t seem like the number of women in leadership positions in large companies in the U.S. will increase markedly unless mandated by either a type of quota or reporting requirement, the idea that women should be put into a position simply due to gender is distasteful to men and women alike. When it comes to promoting women, UK’s Mary Macleod said in the Telegraph, “But if we want to rebuild the economy, it is a mistake to make this just about gender. It’s about opportunity and ambition for this country’s fastest growing demographic – working women. Retaining talent and skills at every level within the organisation and ensuring that women, as well as men, can aspire to achieve their potential, in the most senior positions, is crucial.”
However, when it comes to attitudes about women in leadership, Sandberg believes that “women are held back at work by stereotypes that firms are unwilling to talk about.” At Davos she called for open discussions about gender in organizations, including asking female employees if they plan to have children. She acknowledges that this tactic is likely to make HR departments around the country gasp, but she was adamant that something needed to be done to address and dispel these different views toward men and women as leaders.
“Think of it like a marathon. Everyone’s cheering the men on. The messages for women are different: are you sure you want to run, don’t you want to run, don’t you have kids at home? We have to talk about this.”