Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, author and activist, talks about women taking a seat at the table in this extract from her bestselling book, LEAN IN.
The Leadership Ambition Gap
What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?
My grandmother Rosalind Einhorn was born exactly fifty-two years before I was, on August 28, 1917. Like many poor Jewish families in the boroughs of New York City, hers lived in a small, crowded apartment close to their relatives. Her parents, aunts, and uncles addressed her male cousins by their given names, but she and her sister were referred to only as “Girlie.”
During the Depression, my grandmother was pulled out of Morris High School to help support the household by sewing fabric flowers onto undergarments that her mother could resell for a tiny profit. No one in the community would have considered taking a boy out of school. A boy’s education was the family’s hope to move up the financial and social ladder. Education for girls, however, was less important both financially, since they were unlikely to contribute to the family’s income, and culturally, since boys were expected to study the Torah while girls were expected to run a “proper home.” Luckily for my grandmother, a local teacher insisted that her parents put her back into school. She went on not only to finish high school but to graduate from U.C. Berkeley.
After college, “Girlie” worked selling pocketbooks and accessories at David’s Fifth Avenue. When she left her job to marry my grandfather, family legend has it that David’s had to hire four people to replace her. Years later, when my grandfather’s paint business was struggling, she jumped in and took some of the hard steps he was reluctant to take, helping to save the family from financial ruin. She displayed her business acumen again in her forties. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she beat it and then dedicated herself to raising money for the clinic that treated her by selling knockoff watches out of the trunk of her car. Girlie ended up with a profit margin that Apple would envy. I have never met anyone with more energy and determination than my grandmother. When Warren Buffett talks about competing against only half of the population, I think about her and wonder how different her life might have been if she had been born half a century later.
When my grandmother had children of her own – my mother and her two brothers – she emphasized education for all of them. My mother attended the University of Pennsylvania, where classes were coed. When she graduated in 1965 with a degree in French literature, she surveyed a workforce that she believed consisted of two career options for women: teaching or nursing. She chose teaching. She began a Ph.D. program, got married, and then dropped out when she became pregnant with me. It was thought to be a sign of weakness if a husband needed his wife’s help to support their family, so my mother became a stay-at-home parent and an active volunteer. The centuries-old division of labor stood.
Even though I grew up in a traditional home, my parents had the same expectations for me, my sister, and my brother. All three of us were encouraged to excel in school, do equal chores, and engage in extracurricular activities. We were all supposed to be athletic too. My brother and sister joined sports teams, but I was the kid who got picked last in gym. Despite my athletic shortcomings, I was raised to believe that girls could do anything boys could do and that all career paths were open to me.
When I arrived at college in the fall of 1987, my classmates of both genders seemed equally focused on academics. I don’t remember thinking about my future career differently from the male students. I also don’t remember any conversations about someday balancing work and children. My friends and I assumed that we would have both. Men and women competed openly and aggressively with one another in classes, activities, and job interviews. Just two generations removed from my grandmother, the playing field seemed to be level.
But more than twenty years after my college graduation, the world has not evolved nearly as much as I believed it would. Almost all of my male classmates work in professional settings. Some of my female classmates work full-time or part-time outside the home, and just as many are stay-at-home mothers and volunteers like my mom. This mirrors the national trend. In comparison to their male counterparts, highly trained women are scaling back and dropping out of the workforce in high numbers. In turn, these diverging percentages teach institutions and mentors to invest more in men, who are statistically more likely to stay. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and the first woman to serve as president of an Ivy League university, once remarked to an audience of women my age, “My generation fought so hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.”
So what happened? My generation was raised in an era of increasing equality, a trend we thought would continue. In retrospect, we were naïve and idealistic. Integrating professional and personal aspirations proved far more challenging than we had imagined. During the same years that our careers demanded maximum time investment, our biology demanded that we have children. Our partners did not share the housework and child rearing, so we found ourselves with two full- time jobs. The workplace did not evolve to give us the flexibility we needed to fulfill our responsibilities at home. We anticipated none of this. We were caught by surprise.
If my generation was too naïve, the generations that have followed may be too practical. We knew too little, and now girls know too much. Girls growing up today are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement. Many of these girls watched their mothers try to “do it all” and then decide that something had to give. That something was usually their careers.
There’s no doubt that women have the skills to lead in the workplace. In the United States, girls are increasingly outperforming boys in the classroom, earning about 57 percent of the undergraduate and 60 percent of the master’s degrees. This trend is also evident in the United Kingdom, where women receive 56 percent of undergraduate degrees. Across Europe, 85 percent of women aged twenty to twenty-four completed at least upper secondary education, compared with 80 percent of men. This gender gap in academic achievement has even caused some to worry about the “end of men.” But while compliant, raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace. Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself – traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting. This may explain why girls’ academic gains have not yet translated into significantly higher numbers of women in top jobs. The pipeline that supplies the educated workforce is chock-full of women at the entry level, but by the time that same pipeline is filling leadership positions, it is overwhelmingly stocked with men.
There are so many reasons for this winnowing out, but one important contributor is a leadership ambition gap. Of course, many individual women are as professionally ambitious as any individual man. Yet drilling down, the data clearly indicate that in field after field, more men than women aspire to the most senior jobs. A 2012 McKinsey survey of more than four thousand employees of leading companies found that 36 percent of the men wanted to reach the C-suite compared to only 18 percent of the women. When jobs are described as powerful, challenging, and involving high levels of responsibility, they appeal to more men than women. And while the ambition gap is most pronounced at the highest levels, the underlying dynamic is evident at every step of the career ladder. A survey of college students found that more men than women chose “reaching a managerial level” as a career priority in the first three years after graduating. Even among highly educated professional men and women, more men than women describe themselves as “ambitious".
There is some hope that a shift is starting to occur in the next generation. A 2012 Pew study found for the first time that among young people ages eighteen to thirty-four, more young women (66 percent) than young men (59 percent) rated “success in a high- paying career or profession” as important to their lives. A recent survey of millennials found that women were just as likely to describe themselves as ambitious as men. Although this is an improvement, even among this demographic, the leadership ambition gap remains. Millennial women are less likely than millennial men to agree that the statement “I aspire to a leadership role in whatever field I ultimately work” describes them very well. Millennial women were also less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as “leaders,” “visionaries,” “self- confident,” and “willing to take risks".
Since more men aim for leadership roles, it is not surprising that they obtain them, especially given all the other obstacles that women have to overcome. This pattern starts long before they enter the workforce. Author Samantha Ettus and her husband read their daughter’s kindergarten yearbook, where each child answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They noted that several of the boys wanted to be president. None of the girls did. (Current data suggest that when these girls become women, they will continue to feel the same way.) In middle school, more boys than girls aspire to leadership roles in future careers. At the top fifty colleges, less than a third of student government presidents are women.
[Footnotes have been edited out for this extract]