Today I’d like to share my thoughts on a topic that Facebook COO Sheryl Sanderg has once again brought to the forefront of public consciousness in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the book, Sandberg examines why – when compared against men – women occupy a disproportionately (controlling for education, career choice etc.) small number of corporate leadership roles.
The book elaborates on a number of the root causes behind women’s under-representation in the executive ranks, but in this post I want to focus on the role of work-life balance and its function in preventing women from occupying as many leadership roles as their male counterparts.
Sandberg’s book has drawn very strong reactions – some positive and some negative – on this front. The principle criticism seems to be that women are being called on to juggle the impossible demands of work and family life, and that in her book Sandberg doesn’t put enough onus on the employer to figure out ways to mitigate these challenges (in the form of child care/flex schedules etc.). Some common criticisms of the book are:
Jodi Kantor of the New York Times suggested that Sandberg “places too much of the onus on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands, and too little on government and employers to provide better child care, more flexible jobs and other concrete gains.” Deanna Zandt wrote in Forbes: “I’m all for assertiveness training…. But without simultaneously taking on the structures that keep those norms in place, women are…helping to reproduce [them].”
I personally disagree with the above critiques. More specifically, it isn’t the role of the employer to develop a flexible schedule – for men or women – to accommodate families and work/life needs. Businesses can utilize these perks as part of their talent attraction and retention strategies if they choose, but the needs of a firm will always fundamentally bleed into the personal/family time of any employees that move far enough up the corporate ranks – that’s 1. And executives are compensated handsomely for that time.just the way it goes. 1
There are some good questions around if women (on average) with children even want to work the insane hours executives typically work. There are also some very good questions around if 60 hour work weeks are even needed to get work done at the C-Suite level. 2 2. There really might be a way for executives – men and women both – to “have it all” from a work-life balance standpoint if we rethink the way that we work. This change brings with it some accountability/span of control issues that would likely dramatically impact executive compensation, but the WSJ does make some good points in their article on the subject. I don’t know how flexible companies can make C-Suite level positions (it varies by business), or what their economic incentives would be to do so (again, it depends on the firm), but the compensation questions around it fascinate me. Topic for another day…
Regardless, I don’t think the challenge of creating gender equality at the executive level falls on corporations to solve – I think it lies with society itself. As a society, we have to find a way to address cultural norms around gender roles.
It’s more difficult for women to get ahead in corporate America than men because they (typically) shoulder the majority of child rearing and household duties/responsibilities. I’m all for couples making the decision to have one partner or the other run the household/focus on the childcare while the other focuses on his/her career if that’s a choice they make together (though it may not be the best idea), but in the majority of American households today women are often assigned the household/child rearing duties by default.
Ultimately, we live in a global economy, and any multinational businesses operational needs are going to come before the work-life balance needs of its executives. What I think U.S. society can do a better job of, however, is raising male and female children that are equally capable of thinking about pursuing careers as high flying executives or part-time workers (when their children are young) or even stay at home parents.
Right now the deck is stacked against women for cultural reasons – when women have children it is almost always the woman’s career that stalls as opposed to that of her partner. This is something society needs to address.
…And who knows… if we really do achieve gender equality around household duties and responsibilities then the workplace may shift to reflect this as well (or maybe C-Suites will just be full of single people).
This is a tough topic with no easy answers. If you have any ideas around how to address this challenge please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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