Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaking at Davos

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaking at Davos

In 2009, Business Week published a piece about the low rate of female attendance at The World Economic Forum called: “Davos 2009: Where are the women?” Four years later, many people are still asking the same question.

For the third year running The World Economic Forum (WEF) has had a mandatory quota system in place, insisting that large companies send at least one woman for every four men, to ensure a higher level of women attendees and participation. Yet, despite this quota, the percentage of women attending the WEF has been a meager 17% for the past two years, and has been not much better than that over the past ten years.

Lean In

Considering how underrepresented women are in corporate leadership positions, these numbers aren’t that surprising. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, “In America, only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women, a mere 3 percent of board chairs are women.”

Why so few women? In Kristof’s most recent column, “She’s (Rarely) the Boss,” which he devotes to examining the persistent gender gap at Davos, he quotes from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s forthcoming book “Lean In” to showcase one possible reason why women are still lagging so far behind men.

Sandberg writes:

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

“We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”

Blaming the Victim?

In his column, Kristof asks if Sandberg’s call for women to “lean in” is not, in some way, blaming women for failing in an environment which is not conducive to their success.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, one of the world’s leading gender consulting firms, and author of HOW Women Mean Business, believes that Sandberg is guilty of blaming the victim.

In a post for the Harvard Business Review blog entitled, “Women Don’t Need to ‘Lean In’ More; Powerful Men Need to Reach Out,” Wittenberg-Cox writes that Sandberg missed a terrific opportunity when speaking at Davos:

“It’s sad that so influential a woman couldn’t see — and seize — an opportunity to influence the business world to become more gender balanced. She could have used her position as one of the most powerful women in America today to argue to the men at Davos — 83% of the attendees — that women represent an enormous opportunity for business. That they are the majority of the educated talent on the planet, and the majority of consumers and end-users in an ever-widening array of sectors, including her own. That gender balanced leadership teams correlate to superior corporate returns.

“Instead, she does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other women for not trying hard enough. But women in the US now represent the majority of college graduates, the majority of MAs and the majority of PhDs. How much harder do you want them to ‘lean in’?”

For Wittenberg-Cox, the only way to create gender balance is through “highly proactive management pushing, not a complacent declaration that outsiders can succeed in the existing system by trying harder.”

Moving Beyond a False Dichotomy

Do women need to put themselves out there more or do the, mostly male, leaders of today need to do a better job reaching out to women? The answer is both.

Studies show that there is an ambition gap. Kristof writes:

A McKinsey survey published in April found that 36 percent of male employees at major companies aspired to be top executives, compared with 18 percent of the women. A study of Carnegie Mellon M.B.A. graduates in 2003 found that 57 percent of the men, but only 7 percent of the women, tried to negotiate a higher initial salary offer.

Thus, Sandberg’s call to action to “lean in” is something executive women need to hear. However, asking women to be more ambitious in their careers and more vocal with their aspirations won’t solve the many problems that women face in a workplace built for, as Kristof writes, “a distracted father.”

What is exciting is that brilliant and accomplished women like Sandberg and Wittenberg-Cox are fighting for women in the workplace, even if they are coming at it from two different angles.

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