If you have read this column at any point in the past year or so, you likely have picked up on the fact that I am a feminist. So when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” was published, I eagerly followed the ensuing media maelstrom. Admittedly, I have not read the book, but in some ways, I think the criticism it raises is more telling than the book itself.
As a working woman myself and as the product of a two-working parent household, my first inclination was to jump on the “mommy wars” bandwagon. But rather than being about the tired topic of whether or not women can “have it all,” the book is really about how to correct the dearth of women in corporate America. Sure, Sandberg has two degrees from Harvard and a high-visibility job at one of the world’s most influential companies, but at least she recognizes that there is a problem.
Consider the statistics: Only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies have female chief executives. In North America, only 18 percent of working women are in senior management, compared to 46 percent in Russia. The United States ranks in the bottom 10 economies when it comes to women in senior management. According to the 2012 Grant Thornton International Business Report, the worldwide percentage of women in senior management peaked at 24 percent in 2009 but has since declined to 21 percent—despite research showing that businesses with a greater proportion of women experience stronger stock market growth.
Sandberg’s touchy-feely suggestions—such as insisting husbands split housework, that women draft both short- and long-term career plans and watch videos designed to help them hone their leadership skills—certainly fail to address the larger problem of institutionalized barriers in the workplace. While many critics suggest that Sandberg incorrectly puts the onus on women to be more successful, I recently had an experience that suggests she may be on to something.
One Saturday night, I went to dinner with a group of friends that included one master’s degree recipient and four Ph.D. candidates. During the meal, someone mentioned an article she had recently read about the “imposter syndrome,” a phenomenon that was identified in 1978 during a study of women who were able to crack the glass ceiling in male-dominated businesses. Despite their successes, the women’s intense feelings of inadequacy manifested themselves in behaviors such as being afraid of new responsibilities because of a fear of failure and a belief that any praise given on the job was not genuine. My dinner companions all had stories about times they felt like a fraud at work, and not because anyone criticized them or talked down to them, but simply because they have internalized the belief that they are not qualified to do their jobs.
The critics claim that Sandburg’s advice implicitly blames women for not standing up for themselves in the business world, but that is just part of a bigger problem: allowing women to value their contributions in all aspects of life. While change is never easy, the problems facing women in the workplace are a Catch-22: In order for offices to be free of so-called impostors systemic changes need to happen. But until better support systems are in place, women will remain afraid to be the best they can be. Fortunately, companies like Coca-Cola and UPS are recognizing the need to encourage and support women in leadership positions and have been directing their resources to putting these support systems in place. I sincerely hope that other businesses soon follow their example to use their influence to support the leaders of tomorrow.