Can Sheryl Sandberg Break Up the Old Boys' Club?

Published: Mar 12, 2013

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When Hillary Clinton stepped down as the U.S. Secretary of State earlier this year, it only increased speculation that she would run for president in 2016. It seemed probable, even likely, that the reason Clinton, who is now 65, relinquished her post was to test the waters for another attempt at the presidency and/or rest up for a race that will unofficially begin in less than two years. Clinton, as you may recall, back in 2008, was barely edged out by Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. And today, there’s perhaps no other Democrat with as much popularity and as many qualifications as Clinton, meaning there’s a very good chance that, on the heels of the first African-American president in history, the first female president in history will take office in 2017. However, if Clinton decides against running, there’s a very good chance that it could be another decade (or two) before another woman comes even close to assuming the position of leader of the free world—that is, there aren’t many other women on track to inhabit that role, or perhaps who want it. And this, according to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg—whose much talked about, much reviewed, and much criticized book/manifesto Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was published today—isn’t only the fault of the so-called system but also of women themselves.

[Sandberg’s] point, in a nutshell, is that notwithstanding the many gender biases that still operate all over the workplace, excuses and justifications won’t get women anywhere. Instead, believe in yourself, give it your all, “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave”—which is to say, don’t doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby. Leaning in can promote a virtuous circle: you assume you can juggle work and family, you step forward, you succeed professionally, and then you’re in a better position to ask for what you need and to make changes that could benefit others.

The above was written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who reviewed Lean In in The New York Times this past Sunday. Slaughter, who last summer wrote a much commented on piece for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” supports Sandberg’s career advice of “leaning in,” and says the book is “full of many … gems, slogans that ambitious women would do well to pin up on their wall.” In fact, 80 percent of Slaughter’s review is very positive. However, here’s what she writes at the end of her take on the book:

So is the dearth of women in top jobs due to a lack of ambition or a lack of support? Both, as Sandberg herself grants, proposing that women should “wage battles on both fronts.” Yet she chooses to concentrate only on the “internal obstacles,” the ways in which women hold themselves back. This is unfortunate. As a feminist and a corporate leader, Sandberg seems ideally placed to ask the question that all too often gets lost amid the welter of talk about what women should do, what they should want and how they should behave. When it comes to ensuring that caregivers still have paths to the corner office, how can business lean in?

Sandberg, like Clinton, is a mother, and is often considered to be among the most powerful women in the world (last year, Forbes ranked Clinton No. 2 and Sandberg No. 10 on its annual powerful women list). Sandberg is also among the wealthiest women in the world. When Facebook infamously went public last year, Sandberg became a billionaire; and if her name wasn’t a household one before the IPO, the social media company’s stock offering propelled “Sheryl Sandberg” into the kitchens and bedrooms of millions of American households (and millions of other households outside the U.S.). And now, nearly a year later, with the publication of Lean In, Sandberg has become even more famous and arguably even more powerful, meaning nearly everyone and their working mother wants to take her down a notch. And, to that end, of all the criticism of Lean In I’ve come across in the lead up to its publication (and there’s been so much written about the book that there have been articles written about all the articles written), Slaughter’s piece was one of the few helpful ones I read.

Another helpful piece appeared on The New Yorker website. The following comes from a blog entitled “Maybe You Should Read the Book: The Sheryl Sandberg Backlash.”

Judged on its merits, “Lean In” is an inauguration more than a last word, and an occasion for celebration. Its imperfections should be regarded not as errors or exclusions but opportunities for advancing the conversation.

Indeed, and perhaps no one is trying to advance the conversation more than Sandberg herself. For example, last Thursday and Friday in New York, she spoke at the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan (in closed-to-the-public events; incidentally, those three firms led Facebook’s IPO). Presumably, at the banks, Sandberg spoke about her ideas on the subject of “leaning in,” stressing the need to close the gender gap in the male-dominated world of investment banking (Wall Street and Silicon Valley, where Sandberg calls home, are perhaps the two most male dominated sectors in America).

And while Sandberg tried to impress upon the blue- and gray-suited set that change on Wall Street is long overdue (at least I hope she did), I went back to Vault’s most recent Banking Survey, administered to thousands of investment banking professionals in the spring of 2012, to see if there were any results that could advance the conversation as well. And what I found was highly interesting, and perhaps could serve as further proof that, at least in banking, women aren’t leaning in hard enough, or businesses aren’t leaning in hard enough. Or, perhaps, both are true.

Whatever the case, according to the survey, women rate their firms lower than men do in 23 of 24 workplace categories, including overall satisfaction, work/life balance, hours, culture, female diversity, promotion policies, and compensation (philanthropy is the only category in which women rate their firms higher than men do). Of those 23 categories, there’s more disparity in compensation than any others: women rate their satisfaction with their compensation almost 11 percent lower than men do. And if you’ve read any of the reviews about Sandberg’s book, or seen any interviews she’s given (particularly her spot on “60 Minutes” this past Sunday) you know that compensation disparity is an important cause to Sandberg; she believes that women don’t ask for raises as often as men do and/or don’t ask for raises as well as men. Sandberg, of course, is out to change that.

Also interesting is what the survey data shows with respect to how women rate their firms in various categories throughout their careers. Almost uniformly, across most of the 24 quality of life categories, women in their second years in the industry give their firms the lowest ratings. Meanwhile, women in their third years rate their firms the highest.

There are two possible explanations for this that I could think of. One has to do with hours. Digging deeper into the data shows that, when it comes to hours, there’s a big drop-off between year two and year three in investment banking, as that's typically the divide between the analyst and associate levels. Consider this: of the women in their second years who responded to our survey, 49 percent said they work more than 70 hours per week, and 25 percent say they work more than 80 hours per week. Meanwhile, of the women in their third years who responded, only 18 percent work longer than 70 hours a week, while only 9 percent work longer than 80 hours. And so it would follow that life in a cube might start to look a whole lot better when you're working 10 to 20 fewer hours per week.

However, this trend with respect to hours dropping in the third year also holds true for men, who give their firms the lowest ratings in most workplace issues in year five, not year two, and the highest in year six, not year three.

So, another possible explanation for the drop-off in ratings between year two and year three for women has to do with promotions. That is, it’s likely that most women in their third years have jumped the first career hurdle (been promoted to associate or an associate-equivalent level), whereas women in their second years are still fighting for those promotions (or perhaps have been passed over for a promotion) in an up-or-out culture. And of this latter group, many perhaps believe that their firms' promotion policies don't favor them but their male colleagues. Which might explain why men don't rate promotional policies low during their second years.

Supporting this possible explanation, women give their firms’ promotion policies extremely low scores in their second years in the industry, and give their firms the absolute lowest score in promotion policies after two decades in the industry. Now, if that time between the second and third years marks a banker's first career hurdle, the time after two decades marks his or her final hurdle: that's when employees at high levels within banks (and other types of firms) are typically trying to make it to the very highest. Further, consider that after two decades in the industry, women rate their firm’s promotion policies almost 15 percent lower than men do, and rate their work/life balance almost 14 percent lower.

All of which would presumably point to some sort of gender bias when it comes to promoting women. That is, something’s not working at banks with respect to encouraging women to reaching the highest levels. Does this have to with women being discriminated against by men when it comes to getting to the next level? Likely. Does this have to do with women being unable to balance their home and work lives due to the lack of family-friendly workplace policies at their firms? Also likely.

In any case, it’s precisely this lack of women in leadership roles, in banking and across all industries, which Sheryl Sandberg wants to change more than anything else. She wishes to see the day when women—who for the past three decades have been earning more college degrees than American men each year but currently inhabit only 4 percent of the country’s CEO posts, 14 percent of the S&P 500 board seats, and 18 percent of U.S. Congressional seats—are leading companies and states in equal numbers as men. And this is why she’s spent so much time to develop the "Lean In" philosophy, and why she's now on the road promoting it.

To that end, Sandberg has two upcoming events open to the public. The first is tonight, March 12, in New York, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, where she’ll be speaking with Chelsea Clinton (Hillary's daughter). The second is this Thursday, March 14, in Washington, D.C., where she’ll be speaking with NPR's Michelle Norris. Sandberg is also speaking (in a private event) on April 5 at Harvard, her alma mater, on the 50th anniversary of women being admitted to the school’s MBA program. Sandberg graduated from Harvard Business School in 1995.

Read More:

Yes, You Can: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (NYT)
Maybe You Should Read the Book: The Sheryl Sandberg Backlash (The New Yorker)
There Are Few Women on Wall Street Because There Are Too Many Weiners