The Quest to Redesign Women
In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the Facebook COO called for women to take responsibility for their own success in corporate America. Working women needed to “take a seat at the table” if they wanted to break through the glass ceiling of middle management into the C-suite. Lean In’s message to women was simply, you can have it all if you really want it all. You just need to ask for it.
Much has changed culturally since a fresh copy of Lean In first graced my dorm room bookshelf in 2013. Most feminist activists now view Sandberg’s brand of “corporate feminism” with a critical eye. Sandberg has been roundly condemned as an out-of-touch, rich, white woman — even a supervillain. The purportedly feminist message of Sandberg’s book neatly, “exempts patriarchy, capitalism and business from any responsibility for changing the position of women in contemporary culture.” Her brand of feminism is “corporate 1% feminism,” a defanged version of true feminism. Disdain for Lean In has produced a counterculture of ‘lean out’ feminism, pushing women to ‘lean out’ of corrupt systems built for men and greedy capitalists.
Former Google employee James Damore and former executive at both Google and Facebook, Marissa Orr take a less radical approach with their criticism of corporate feminism. They don’t believe the best way to address gender disparity in SET is to “burn it all down,” but instead turn their focus to dissecting a hotly debated topic: gender differences and their effect on women at work. Damore calls for institutional change and better accomodation of women’s needs within the technology sector in his now notorious memo. He was roundly condemned as a sexist for reminding the general populous that men and women are different and was quickly ousted from Google.
In her book Lean Out: The Truth about Women, Power, and the Workplace, Marissa Orr argues that women don’t make it to the top of the corporate ladder because their feminine values are not fundamentally reflected in corporate leadership structures. This systemic flaw ultimately sets women up to stall out on their careers or replace their internal motivational structure with a more acceptable “masculine” version.
Both Orr and Damore believe corporations should focus more on satisfying women’s priorities, not reengineering gender differences. If tech companies really want gender parity across the corporate pipeline, it’s time to rethink the one-size-fits-all path to leadership, designed when most corporate environments were majority male.The cultural support exists; today it’s not only women who value flexibility over career growth. Both young women and men share the ideals of gender flexibility and work-family balance. Unfortunately, hitting that balance continues to be a challenge. Most women still do a majority of household chores and just 5% of CEO roles at S&P 500 companies are held by women.
Changing the pipeline and incentive structure within tech organizations doesn’t preclude the need to also heed Sandberg’s advice; women still need to ask for that raise and their seat at the table. But perhaps corporate feminists should also question if total gender parity in SET fields and within the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies is really a goal to which we should all be so tirelessly committed.
The assumption that women need to behave more like men to succeed— or rather, a deeply flawed male stereotype — is a fundamental tenet of most corporate “female empowerment” initiatives. Corporations host seminars, promote ‘Lean In’ circles, and assemble employee resource groups designed to move more women into senior leadership positions. To qualify, however, women need to embrace the psychotic hubris that corporate America demands of its senior leadership. Shed the cooperative attitude and stop being a “nice girl.” Replace a desire to be liked with an unapologetic drive for success; replace a predisposition to be humble with unwavering confidence.
Lois Frankel makes precisely this argument in her book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. Frankel believes that a woman must overcome the “nice girl syndrome” — socialization in being polite, soft-spoken, compliant and relationship-oriented — in order to achieving the career success she wants.
Nice is necessary for success, but simply not sufficient…winning women look at resistance as a necessary part of building relationships.
Frankel argues that women are simply too nice and too nurturing, qualities that ultimately inhibit their ability to succeed in the corporate world. Frankel structures her book around the mistakes that women frequently make in their work environment. A few of a multitude of transgressions that women are guilty of in their daily work lives include: feeding others, appearing nurturing, needing to be liked, being modest, explaining things to other, and taking responsibility. By engaging in or giving into these “bad” habits, women set themselves up for failure. It seems at some points in the book that Frankel isn’t calling for women to merely appear confident; she is asking women to be egoists.
Women are naturally more open about their self-doubts and insecurities than men, in general. Unfortunately, being in touch with one’s emotions is seen as a liability when attempting to climb the corporate ladder. Hesitating to demand a raise or doubting one’s qualifications for a position are actions and thoughts frequently chastised by corporate feminists like Sheryl Sandberg and Lois Frankel. These feelings of doubt or insecurity, normally quite natural human emotions, are dismissed as toxic or invalid. They are not acknowledged as valid emotional states but instead are blamed on years of societal conditioning.
Male traits better compliment the environment of most technology and engineering sectors within corporate America, as well as senior leadership roles in the C-suites of most businesses. That’s an inescapable reality; there is less need for human connection, for being “in touch with your emotions,” when developing a new software, running database queries or saving a company from the brink of financial collapse. Is it realistic to ask these environments to change? Perhaps it’s just as unrealistic as asking the women within those environments to stop prioritizing what makes them happy.
What Women Really Want
Women make up less than 25% of the STEM workforce in the United States; in 2017, women in the US accounted for less than 20% of software developers and less than 5% of network architects. Only 3% of female students would consider a career in technology as their first choice. The attrition rate for women in tech is quite high as well; they are 45% more likely to leave than their male counterparts.
Companies are challenged first to encourage more women to enter into technology and engineering roles and then to overcome the hurdle of persuading those same women to stay long term. Feelings of isolation within male-dominated work environments and too few women role models are factors frequently noted as major contributors to women’s departures from these sorts of workplaces. The lack of effective women role models, due to various barriers to entry, create the reported feelings of isolation and, in turn, cause women to leave technology jobs in droves.
The disparity between female and male representation in STEM careers is a complex phenomenon; its contributing factors include gaps in interest levels expressed by women vs men in specific technologies, lack of female leadership, and more women leaving the tech workplace mid-career than men, thus creating more disparity. There are, of course, outliers who defy all three category of woman, but there is clearly a reason for this gap; and it might not be systemic gender discrimination.
Jordan Peterson, in his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, maintains the oft-debated claim that boys’ interests “tilt towards things and girls’ interests tilt towards people.” Anyone who works with both women and men in the workplace see this reflected clearly in the roles that are usually filled by women — marketing, human resources — and those usually dominated by men, namely engineering and technology roles. It’s rare to find a woman who wants to sit and code for hours in isolation, avoiding all human contact. More women want to build relationships than men, within and outside of the workplace.
The corporate feminist tendency to blame women for failing to adopt the same career interests as men rarely qualifies the lack of participation of men in female-dominated fields as a major issue. Approximately 77 percent of public school teachers are female and yet there are very few national campaigns recruiting men to pivot careers and start teaching at elementary schools instead of going into software development.
A staggering 81 percent of human resource workers are women, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. HR is a role specifically designed for those who enjoy working closely with others. HR generalists and managers need good people skills and, ideally, a set of personality traits not unlike the very ones that Lois Frankel urges women to suppress. HR teams do everything from assisting with the recruitment process and coaching employees through daunting career moves within a company to counseling coworkers through challenging interpersonal issues. 88.9 percent of registered nurses are women for the same reason; in these fields, feminine traits are highly valued.
James Damore was quickly expelled from Google for simply stating what facts and figures clearly demonstrate. In his controversial memo, he chastised Google for its ineffective policies intended to encourage more women to participate in tech and for assuming that all gender gaps imply sexism. He argued that women, on average, express higher levels of agreeableness over assertiveness; that women, on average, have more interest in people over things and feelings over ideas. All these factors combine to create a significant impact on which careers women pursue. They explain why more women tend to favor jobs in social arenas than men and why there are more male software engineers and women human resource managers.
Women tend to value relationships for their own sake, as Marissa Orr points out in Lean Out:
“For me, the relationships I build hold currency in that I derive enjoyment from the feelings of connection they bring. Trying to leverage them for some business advantage feels compromising, threatening the strong connections I take great care to build… [For some] Connection to others is its own reward… [for others] relationships for their own sake aren’t as rewarding.”
Generally, women prioritize relationships more highly than men which leads to women prioritizing spending fewer hours at the office over working 80-hour weeks for a chance at a senior leadership position. C-suite and senior leadership positions usually require putting in long hours in a stressful work environment. This scenario simply doesn’t appeal to most women who prioritize balance in their lives.
According to Women in the Workplace, a study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, “87 percent of companies are highly committed to gender diversity, compared to 56 percent in 2012.” Yet, a cursory glance over the raw data of gender distribution in the corporate pipeline, from entry to level to C-suite, shows that not much has changed since 2012.
A four percentage point increase of women represented in the C-suite over a period of 4 years doesn’t reflect the massive percentage change in sentiment during that same period of time.
According to a study of executives at the top companies, men overwhelmingly get the management jobs in which a company’s profits and losses hang in the balance, roles that frequently set executives on the CEO track. In contrast, women promoted to C-suites often fill roles such as head of HR, administration or legal.
“You can have a seat at the table and not be a player,” said Jewelle Bickford, a partner at Evercore Wealth Management and co-chair of Paradigm for Parity.
According to the same Women in the Workplace study conducted last year, there is a quickly growing phenomenon of “Only” Women; a term referring to those who find themselves frequently as the only, or one of the only, women in the room at work. About, “1 in 5 women say they are often an ‘Only,’ and this experience is about twice as likely for senior-level women and women in technical roles.” Generally, these “Only” women in technical fields or senior leadership fields are not happy at work. The report calls for companies to make these environments more inclusive by hiring and promoting women in cohorts, to be deliberate about staffing by putting groups of two or three women on teams together and to help women build connections with each other through mentorship programs or by staffing them on cross-functional projects.
Merely adding a female to a senior role in a company doesn’t guarantee better outcomes. Critical mass is key to systemic change and research indicates that women perform better when accompanied by other women on their road to success. Without institutional change, and workplaces that are friendlier to feminine traits, women will face the “Only” woman conundrum and opt out of the corporate world altogether.
The bigger problem than gender bias is system bias. The way we judge competence and evaluate good work is broken and biased toward traits that are more common among men.
Marissa Orr continually makes this case throughout her book; we need to redirect our focus from how women can change to how the system can change. Sandberg’s focus in her seminal book was around the individual woman and the decisions she should make to effectively climb up the proverbial ladder. The distilled down message of Lean In being that, if a woman works hard enough, sacrifices enough, prioritizes enough, asserts herself enough, she can succeed at work and at home.
But can a woman succeed in a system not build for her? Orr doesn’t believe she can. By encouraging women to ‘lean out,’ we can push systemic change. Change the system to encourage transparency around hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions. Change the system to offer a larger variety of rewards and move away from using male behaviors as measures for competence and foundations for effective leadership qualities.
While this might be an attractive possibility in an ideal world, it remains steadily unrealistic.
According to Frederick Von Hayek, one of the challenges of modernity is that we have to learn to live in “two sorts of worlds at once.” We live as mother and as manager, as father and politician. These two worlds demand different of sacrifices from the individual. Hayek argued that a majority of our moral instincts were shaped while living in small kin-based societies, and therefore all notions of collective purpose, shared ends, altruism are deeply ingrained in our minds. Unfortunately, these moral instincts are not effective in the anonymous world of corporations. It’s easy to give food away for free to family and close friends; it becomes less easy to give things away freely with each degree of separation.
The [market] is of a degree of size and complexity that most of the people we interact with are not known personally to us. The market, for example, is particularly good at enabling us to achieve cooperation in anonymity. In that world, we cannot act based on our detailed knowledge of others. More important, markets and societies do not have unified ends and singular goals. Instead, they serve as processes for enabling different people with different goals to make use of markets and societies as means toward those ends.
In many ways, Sandberg, when she called for women in ‘lean in,’ was echoing Hayek’s thoughts on the anonymity of corporations. She was acknowledging the same difference between work life and home life; that the same traits that make some women great mothers might not make them effective CEOs. Women need to force themselves into the corporate mold to be successful. Most corporate jobs require very little need for altruism and, when competing for market success, cooperation is not as valuable a trait as competition. It’s through competition, not through cooperation, that we gradually increase our efficiency and rise to the top.
Corporate leadership pipelines champion self-promoting behaviors; networking is all about establishing mutually beneficial relationships and championing one’s own successes. These traits and behaviors are usually branded as “male” and Marissa Orr hinges much of her argument on this concept in her book. She claims that women can’t succeed in a system built around traditionally “male” behaviors. In reality, corporate structures are not built for men or women. A corporation isn’t interested in fostering the behaviors that make humans good, such as humility, empathy, temperance, kindness. Success in the corporate world requires a separation of figurative church and state. We must all shed a bit of our humanity to produce the results that the market demands.
Women, on average, are more predisposed to empathy over men. Women tend to be more cooperative and corporate leadership structures rarely encourage cooperation, despite lacklustre references to the importance of being a “team player.” American men, on average, display higher degrees of self-esteem than their female counterparts. Men have an easier time fitting the mold of corporatism generally because they are better at compartmentalizing than women, making it easier to live in in “two sorts of worlds at once.”
There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.
- Camille Paglia
A recent study produced results indicating that male brains show more extreme variance than women’s brains, with extreme brain structure contributing to increased male vulnerability to certain disorders. Women occupy the vast middle of the IQ spectrum but men turn up at the opposite extremes.
On average, CEOs, mostly men, are prone to displaying more psychopathic traits than the average populous. Men tend to express these psychopathic traits via external behaviors, dominating others and displaying overt aggression, while women tend to express their rarely diagnoses psychopathic traits internally, in the form of self-harm or extreme emotions. The extremes of the spectrum on which men fall explain why there are more examples of male geniuses, and male psychotics, than women.
Basic acknowledgement of gender differences is a vital first step towards answering the question of which sex is truly more empowered, men or women. Granted, there are more men among top politicians, business leaders, and prominent intellectuals; men also make up 92% of the prison population in the United States.
Therein lies the problem with unquestionably marching towards the goal of achieving total gender parity within male-dominated fields. It requires a certain blindness to other factors; no push for gender parity in fields that are generally female dominated or within the majority male most deadly occupations and no acknowledgment of the luxury of choice most women enjoy that men do not. Women have the luxury of opting out more than men — isn’t that empowerment?
Female executives choose, out of their own volition, to leave traditional corporate life at a much higher rate than men. A 2018 Network of Executive Women analysis of hiring, promotion and turnover data for 400,000 employees at eight major retail and consumer-goods companies found senior women left their jobs at nearly four times the rate of their male colleagues: 27% vs. 7%.
The realities of resistant social and economic institutions make the ideals of gender parity and work/life balance seem distant and elusive. For women to truly succeed in the workplace, equal sharing of household duties and childcare duties is a requirement, for those in relationships and/or those who have children. A recent survey found that opposite-sex couples aged 18 to 34 were no more likely than older couples to divide household chores equitably, with a majority of household chores handled by the woman. This is despite the fact that young men tend to show increasing support for gender equality.
At a time when women are told to ‘lean in’ more, men are, by default, expected to pick up extra chores at home, yet it continues to be difficult to encourage this type of behavioral change. Men simply are not inclined to be caregivers by choice. Kathleen Gerson elaborates on these tensions between changing lives and resistant institutions in her book The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family. The entrance of women into the workforce and the blurring of gender boundaries have left both men and women with the same demands on their time, but with less guidance on how to divy it all up. On the job, workers continue to “experience enormous pressures to give uninterrupted full-time, and often overtime, commitment not just to move up but to even stay in place. In the home, privatized caretaking leaves parents, especially mothers, coping with seemingly endless demands and unattainable standards.”
Free to Be… You and Me
The old brand of feminism was best expressed in the post-1960s world of gender neutrality. Children’s programs such as “Free to Be… You and Me” upheld values cherished by feminists at the time, namely individuality and gender equality. Boys and girls could be anyone and achieve anything they put their young minds to — this thematic message resonated with a society that sorely needed that sort of encouragement at the time and did fantastic service to the little girls who did not dream of being stay-at-home moms. It seems as though feminism has strayed far from this path.
The core message of this type of new corporate feminism is best summarized in a quote by former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Judith Rodin:
“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.”
Sandberg reinforced this concept in Lean In when she refers to the problem of women taking a step back from work — either intentionally or unintentionally — when they get married, in preparation for having children. They might reject promotions or turn down jobs that will require more time at the office. Sandberg urges these women not to “leave before you leave…keep your foot on the gas pedal until your life actually changes. Then you can make the decision to keep driving quickly, slow down, or step out of the car.”
Women now have the freedom to choose the same career paths and make the same life choices that men have made for decades. But what if they don’t want the same things?
Running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen
Making bank, shaking hands, driving 80
Tryna get home just to feed the baby…
Yeah, ever since the beginning
We’ve been redesigning women
The song “Redesigning Women” by The Highway Women encapsulates our modern expectations for women. The modern woman successfully juggles her responsibilities in all arenas of both work and family life, not just because she can but because she wants to. At a certain stage in life, however, data seems to indicate that many women don’t want to juggle it all, despite Sheryl Sandberg’s platitudes to lean in even when it feels impossible. In reality, if women don’t want to sacrifice their family life for work, then they should feel free to leave the traditional workplace in favor of something more flexible, and not be expected to keep their “foot on the gas pedal.” Many women choose entrepreneurship as an alternative; the number of female-owned businesses in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past twenty years. To Marissa Orr’s point, however, this mass exodus can be attributed to many women feeling forced to leave because of an unfriendly corporate work environment. Perhaps fewer women would have to make this difficult choice if we challenged workplaces to embrace and incorporate feminine traits over what she refers to as traditionally ‘masculine’ ones in their leadership structures.
Corporate career women bemoaning gender parity issues within the C-suites of major tech companies would do well to recognize the inherent privilege of being able to debate this issue; it’s a testament to the societal progress achieved with respect to gender equality in a relatively short amount of time. The corporate, big tech systems admittedly might not have been built for women, by women — but that doesn’t mean the answer to our problems is to burn it down. Not if the system works. Financial prosperity and competitive advantages will continue to be the most valued traits in corporations within a free-market, capitalist society. It’s unlikely that an attempt at quasi-feminization of the corporate landscape would radically change that. Humanization of corporate America is hard enough.
Respecting individual career preferences should be placed at a higher value than achieving total gender parity across every profession. Government entities would be wise to remember this before placing legal requirements on corporations to put females in their boardrooms. California’s attempt at creating a utopia of gender parity in leadership could instead result in companies naming women to boards only to comply with regulation, rather than incorporate new skills — potentially exacerbating the “Only” woman problem further. Corporations should focus instead on revamping their dated incentive structures, weeding out bad management, and building capabilities to effectively and fairly measure performance across all spectrums. These measures will not guarantee gender parity across corporate pipelines — but perhaps everyone could benefit, regardless of gender.
It’s unlikely that jobs within SET fields or corporate senior leadership positions will be friendlier to traditionally feminine traits anytime in the near future. A woman should be free to choose what she wants to dedicate her life to, whether it’s all family or all work or a little of both. She can incorporate pieces of advice from everyone — from Sandberg, Damore, Orr and Frankel — and lean as far in or out as she wants. Admitting that, on average, working women value flexibility over promotional opportunities, collaboration over compensation, and security over C-suite, helps to clarify why the gender disparity in certain fields exist. Acknowledging gender differences is an important first step towards informing our perspectives on gender parity, pay gaps and what action organizations and individuals should take in response.