Keep your foot on the gas pedal?

by Katrina on May 31, 2011

This is a provocative talk that Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) gave at the TEDWomen conference last year. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely check it out. It’s about why we don’t have more women leaders.

Some disturbing statistics:

  • Of 190 heads of state, nine are women.
  • Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women.
  • In the corporate sector, women  in C-level jobs and board seats top out at only 15-16 percent.
  • Even in the non-profit world, women at the top equal only 20 percent.
  • The numbers have not moved since 2002.

Her advice to women who want to stay in the workforce is

1. Sit at the table
Women systematically underestimate our own abilities. We need to be better advocates for ourselves and each other. I fully agree.

From Sandberg’s talk:

A study in the last two years of people entering the workforce out of college showed that 57 percent of boys entering—or men, I guess—are negotiating their first salary, and only seven percent of women. And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors.

If you ask men why they did a good job, they’ll say, “I’m awesome. Obviously. Why are you even asking?”

If you ask women why they did a good job, what they’ll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard.

Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side…

2. Make your partner a real partner
Women still do far more housework and childcare than men, even when both work. (I would add that we also take on more the of “psychic burden” of this work. See Who Clips the Nails? for more on this.)

Her point is that if we’re going to work outside the home, we need more help in the home. I agree with this one, too, although it’s not so easy to address in the messy reality of our daily lives. And it also doesn’t take into account the insane pressure on our partners to work crazy hours.

3. Don’t leave before your leave
This was the piece of advice that least resonated with me.

Basically, Sandberg is saying that when women decide to have children, they check out mentally at work. They let themselves get passed over for promotions, and so on. She advises women to “keep their foot on the gas pedal” until the day they decide to leave.

That is exactly what I did. And we know where that led. In retrospect, I can see I should have taken my foot off the gas sooner, not later.

Apparently, other people could see that, too. Years ago, another working mom in my office told me she declined a promotion because she didn’t want the added responsibility when her kids were so young. Our boss said, Look at Katrina. She’s doing it. And my coworker said, I don’t want Katrina’s life.

I would argue that women need to have more compassion for themselves, and know when to slow down. Which is very, very hard to do when the expectations on us to be Super Moms are so great.

Here’s another example. I have a friend who had a “successful” corporate career until two things happened:

1. She found out her child had special needs.

2. Around the same time, her husband’s career track made it necessary for him to work insane hours.

She ended up dropping out of the workforce in order to take care of her child. Someone had to, and it made more sense for her to do it since her husband made more money than she did.

This was hard, because she loved her career. But she loved her family more, and under the circumstances, she couldn’t have both. What made it harder was hearing from an older working mom friend, “I just don’t understand the choices that you’ve made.” As if my friend has betrayed her feminist values by staying home to take care of her kid who needed her.

This attitude makes me crazy. It’s the idea that women are just the same as men. Exactly the same, but with different plumbing equipment. My friend Joan Blades calls this “Equality Feminism.”

I’m of the “Difference Feminism” school. In other words, men and women are equally worthy, but we are not the same. We need different things at different times in our lives. For many of us (not all, but many) that means we need to be able to SLOW DOWN in our careers when our children are little. Later, we may want to speed up again.

The real problem is that most careers are unforgiving. Once you slow down, you’re discounted. You can’t ever make up for the lost ground.

I would say if there’s one thing we need to do to make room for more women in leadership, it’s not telling them to “keep their foot on the gas pedal.” For many of us, that’s the surest way to drive ourselves over the cliff. Instead, we need a more forgiving career path.

What do you think about Sandberg’s advice? What advice would you give women who want to keep working after they have children?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Davis Kho

I love your definition of difference feminism, so true. I doubt either of us (or your readers) really sat in college classes dreaming of the day when we’d be home administering to a sick child (as I am doing today) or waiting for the plumber while our imagined husbands brought home the bacon. We were gunning the gas, hard. But until both men and women get some systematic flexibility in the workplace, this is what has to happen, at least in my family. Someone needs to be able to ratchet the workload up and down in tandem with family needs, and my husband’s employer won’t let him. So as the self-employed person in the family, I’m it.

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Arielle

As much as I want to see women succeed in any and every aspect of the world, I’m not so on board with the “Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side…” idea. I don’t WANT a corner office if it means I don’t get to sit side by side with colleagues and friends! What’s a corner office good for, anyway? Prestige? Status? Power? Authority? A nice view of the outside world you never get to live in because you’re always in the office?

What I’m interested in is a world–even a working world–in which these markers of achievement and hierarchy are dismantled somewhat, so that working in a fulfilling, worthwhile job “side by side” with others could be seen as desirable and “successful” as having a “corner office.” You can’t take the corner office with you, as they say. There’s no corner office in the afterlife, as far as I know, and if there is, you probably don’t get it by constantly talking about how awesome you are and neglecting to work as part of a team.

So I guess what I want is a work culture that values and honors TEAMWORK, the group, collaboration, compromise, community, etc. Gendered stuff, to be sure, but things I am finding are the most important aspects of life to me at this point. My full-time job was great in many ways, and not great in many ways, but one thing I found really disappointing about it was the potential for–and lack of–of authentic community and collaboration with my colleagues. There was, instead, a lot of “looking out for #1.” Which, frankly, sucked for all concerned.

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Katrina

Arielle–So glad you brought this up. I have mixed feelings about the whole corner office thing. I guess I’m ambitious, but I never thought of myself as being super career focused. So is it really that big a deal if women rarely get that “corner office”?

But one thing I’m clear about–I believe that if we had more women in positions of power (in government, business, etc.) that the world would be a better place. Who knows, maybe fewer of us would have that corner office, because the whole idea of this rigid hierarchy would start to break down in favor of more team-oriented culture.

I’m not totally making this up–studies show women are better listeners than men, they make better managers, and their higher levels of social intelligence can have a big impact on group dynamics. Also, groups with more women have a higher “social IQ” than those with more men.
See this HBR article: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women: http://hbr.org/2011/06/defend-your-research-what-makes-a-team-smarter-more-women/ar/1

One more anecdote: When Madeline Albright formed a women’s coalition within the UN, they changed the way the world sees rape as a weapon of war. We need this kind of diversity (gender, race, etc.) at the top levels of power, because it really does change the conversation.

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Arielle

I ABSOLUTELY agree we need more women at the top, across the culture. But I also think that the culture has to change to be more valuing of the WAY women might be at the top. In other words, this might in fact look like a more team-oriented, less hierarchical structure, which I for one think would be a great thing for all. For example, maybe the financial meltdown wouldn’t have happened the way it did if there had been more internal checks-and-balances, more group-work, involved (some of the whistle-blowers were indeed women).

I just don’t know that “the corner office” is an ideal I want upheld. I want people to want to work for personal and cultural fulfillment, for financial security, for bettering the world and themselves, for innovation, for team effort, for community…ok, even for profits. I want people to work so they can enjoy the other aspects of their lives: their families, friends, world. I don’t really want people to want to work for status and privilege, for “I’m better than you are.” I just think that’s a really empty model (though it is certainly one humans–at least in patriarchal cultures–have upheld through the ages).

I myself am trying to question my own relationship to notions of prestige and power around my former, and perhaps future, career(s).

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Katrina

Ditto to everything you said. My only point is it might take more women in “the corner office” to do away with the notion of the corner office.

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Kristy LaFollette

Nice post and thank you for promoting Sandberg’s talk, it’s succinct and obviously strikes a chord with many of us.

One of the things I have not been reading as much is how men are more stay at home these days and how this role impacts the traditional notion that they rarely do housework, take care of the kids, etc. Maybe it’s just me and living in the Bay Area, but I have over a dozen women friends whose male partners are stay at homes or their jobs are not “bread winner” jobs. Can you share any studies/in depth articles that you may know around this? I’d love to hear from others too.

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Katrina

Good question, Kristy. I’ll put “stay at home dads” on my list of blog topics.

Here’s what I know off the top of my head:

-While stay at home dads have gotten a lot of press recently, they still comprise a teeny-weeny percent of stay at home parents overall.

-When both parents work, moms still do something like TWICE as much childcare/housework as dads, even if they both work f/t.

-I ran across a report at some point that said the dads doing more household responsibilities are the BLUE COLLAR workers, while the white collar dads are still lagging behind.

-While brings me to this post I did about a year ago: http://wp.me/pVKXl-1v The real issue for many white collar dads and moms is this idea of the “two-spouse career”– jobs that are so intense and demand such long hours that they require that the spouse not work, so she (it’s usually a she, not always) can pick up all the slack.

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Heather

I totally agree with you about the ‘difference feminism’. I have written as well that equality does not imply sameness. As I often say on this site…it’s the economic system that needs a change, one in which we can make money helping each other (service based, as people are aging or young) and working fewer hours. It’s arthimatic, plain and simple. A few tweeks on how money moves — and many issues go away.

I’m with you…I’m resisting a offer on a supervisory role because I don’t want work in my head at home. All Americans need more leisure time…guess what? We’ll probably take a vacation and help out the economy in other ways.

By the way, these are other women’s sons who are making this money and set up these issues. We can change society one mom to one son at a time.

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Addis

I didn’t take her suggestion to keep your foot on the gas to be a bad thing and I don’t think she meant that you should go full speed again while raising small children unless you want to. I know a number of very smart women who didn’t bother to find challenging or rewarding work because they expected to get married and stay home with their children. Unfortunately this has not happened yet for some of them and they have thus far missed out on seeing what they can accomplish in the business or non-profit world. I think periods of high creativity and achievement cycled with periods of rest and renewal are beneficial to everyone, not just women with children.

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Irina

As a mom of two young kids I see no way to keep my foot on the gas and still keep control of the car long enough to have time to decide to leave before I crash. It’s a lofty goal to change the world and the role of women in it but I am not willing to sacrifice MY world for it.

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