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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