Why Are There Too Few Women Leaders?

Sheryl Sandberg I have been listening to a fascinating TED talk on iTunes on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Before we dive in, you have heard of TED – right? [TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate "ideas worth spreading." There are many hundreds of free talks online, or as they say on the TED web site,“Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” If you are not familiar with TED – get thee to the TED site!] The other piece of this is - yes! You can watch the videos via an iTunes podcast so you can check that out too.

Ok, to the main topic. At 2130 Partners we have a strong commitment to women’s leadership. In addition to our corporate work, we have been investor activists with The Hunger Project for years. It is clear that the solution to world hunger is empowering women. I won’t go into all the details about that here, but the role of women and women’s leadership is an enormous overarching issue in the realm of “leadership” and it’s critical that we as leaders understand the barriers and come up with solutions.

In Sandberg’s talk she cites the following statistics for the current state of women’s leadership in the world:

  • Of 190 heads of state, 9 are women
  • Of all the parliaments in the world, just 13% of members are women
  • In top corporate jobs, only 15-16% are held by women
  • In the non-profit world, top jobs are held by about 20% women

Rather than focus on corporate policies and such, Sheryl focuses on the messages we should be giving to women and what they should be thinking about if they choose to be leaders. According to her, they are:

  • Women need to “sit at the table” – what she talks about here is how women have radically different self images from men particularly in underestimating themselves. This is something that has been shown in research studies for too many years.
    • Women systematically underestimate their own abilities.
    • Women don’t negotiate for themselves in the workforce.
    • Men attribute their success to themselves and women attribute it to other external factors.
  • “Make Your Partner a Real Partner”
    • This is about the power of equality in marriage/committed relationships as far as the distribution of responsibilities and also about society being more supportive of those who choose to work from home. This makes an enormous difference for women’s success.
  • “Don’t Leave Before You Leave”
    • This is about women “mentally leaving” or taking the foot off the gas pedal of their careers as they start to envision having families and children, often far in advance of these events happening. Her point is to stay in the game until you are really leaving.

As Sandberg says in this talk, there are no easy answers and it will take a true cultural shift for the number of women in the population to be equally represented in various leadership roles. The thing is don’t you want this for your daughter? For your niece? For your grand-daughter? Don’t you want it to be true when you tell them they can be anything they want to be when they grow up?