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8 March 2014

On International Women's Day: Lean In, But Also Reach Out

As we celebrate International Women's Day, my Twitter feed brims with links to reports on the state of women in the workplace. Several of them are fairly upbeat about the upward trends of the past decade. For example, a Financial Times Special Report on Women in Business in Emerging Markets shows that the proportion of women in senior management positions has increased globally, from 19% in 2004 to 24% in 2014 (in case you wonder, the US ranks as one of the bottom 10 countries with 22%, ahead of Germany and Denmark (14%), which are tied with India and the UAE for bottom 4. See this infographic for a summary).
Another Women's Day tweet links to a blog post by CERN's director Rolf Heuer, who proudly reports a rise in female staff members from 17% to 20% in the last decade.

This is progress, but the numbers these reports show are still alarmingly low. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote on occasion of Women's Day a few years back over at the HBR blog,

"By 2010, there is much progress to celebrate, and much left to do [...]. Increasing numbers of women have achieved powerful positions where they can lend a helping hand to women who are still victims of poverty, violence, health disparities, and limited education. Women leader networks that once functioned as career-builders and support systems for members, such as the International Women's Forum, now focus on what leaders can give to less-advantaged women. [...] So I'm cheering two-thirds of the way. I will release Cheer Three when gender gaps close, limitations fade, and there is attention to problems of opportunity and inclusion throughout the year. I'm not holding my breath. But I have a bottle of vitamin water ready for a toast to gender equity, just in case."

Many reasons for gender gaps are well known and widely discussed (Kanter cites a few above, and the World Economic Forum issues a comprehensive annual report on gender gaps). But even educated, middle-class women are held back in the workplace. Sheryl Sandberg's recent call for women to Lean In is based on the assumption that what holds us back is mostly within ourselves, so if we stop making excuses and instead give it our all, speak up, negotiate better, i. e. if we lean in to our careers, we can become leaders in our profession. However, for most women fully leaning in is prohibitively expensive (see "The True Cost of Leaning In", which cites a figure of around $96,000 per year). So while I agree with Sandberg that women need to believe in and stand up for themselves, I also believe that the individual view needs to be enriched by a relational view. Women need to lean in, but they also need to reach out. I want to concentrate here on two relational issues that I believe hold women back in the workplace. One of them is a lack of female role models, and the other one is a lack of female networking. Let's start with female role models. Although the proportion of female executives is now at 24% worldwide, there is a comparative dearth of success stories featuring women leaders in business. Earlier this year, Nitin Nohria, the Dean of Harvard Business School, made news when he pledged to more than double the case studies with female protagonists from 9% to 20% over the next 5 years, following a major debate on gender equity at HBS.

This resonates with my personal experience. Up until very late in graduate school, I had not had a single female role model. Granted, I grew up outside the US, and held my first jobs/went to school in countries where (at least at the time) women were extremely rare creatures among executives and senior academics. When I accepted my first academic job in the US, I was one of two women in my department (the other woman was junior, too, and resigned when she had a baby). I went on to become the first woman ever to be tenured in my department (another woman has been tenured since, and the overall female quota in the department is now close to 30%, so that is a cause for celebration). I've had the good fortune of having several amazing male role models and mentors over the years, and I am really thankful for that. I wouldn't have gotten ahead without them. But I definitely felt the absence early in my career of female senior colleagues I could use as a frame of reference. Ann-Marie Slaughter, in her critique of Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In", writes:

"Young women might be much more willing to lean in if they saw better models and possibilities of fitting work and life together: ways of slowing down for a while but still staying on a long-term promotion track; of getting work done on their own time rather than according to a fixed schedule; of being affirmed daily in their roles both as parents and as professionals."

The second issue is female networking. Few would argue against the idea that networking is the key to professional advancement and successful careers. However, while there is a rich history of "old boys networks", much less is known about women's informal networks. My colleague Marta Gutman, an architectural historian, uncovered a fascinating exemplar in her new book "A City For Children". She shows how women in the US maintained active professional networks for 100 years that were directed at providing care for needy children (spoiler alert: those networks worked really well). Gutman views the success of these networks as a function of the highly gendered field they were embedded in - the social welfare economy. Outside of female-dominated fields, networking is harder for women. This is not merely a question of numbers, but also a question of time, rooted in the perception of work/life balance by many women. As Arlie Hochschild described in her seminal book "The Second Shift", women perceive their "double day" (work and home) as an individual problem, not as a social problem, which it actually is, and the "supermom strategy" is for the working mother to do it all. To me, an obvious consequence of this strategy is that women try to find ways to save time during the work day, and one of the first things to be cut is time spent in informal situations, such as hallway chats, long lunches, or receptions. But it is a short-sighted strategy, and it might be the very reason we tread in place. We have to tune out the ticking of the babysitter clock, and instead make conscious room for networking in our schedules. Networking is not a waste of time. It is a way out of the still gaping gender gap in the workplace. So here is my wish for International Women's Day 2014: Let's make a commitment to not only lean in, but to also reach out.

Posted by Maria Binz-Scharf at March 8, 2014 2:46 PM