Vitruvian WomanSnapshot – Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s 2015 collaboration for The New York Times highlights how the discussion about gender balanced leadership has progressed.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant presented four opinion pieces in The New York Times at the beginning of the year. Sheryl, COO, Facebook, is well known for her book “Lean In” and her advocacy for gender balanced leadership.  Adam is a Wharton Professor and the author of “Give and Take”. Their articles represent a distinctive shift in the gender diversity discussion.

First, a quick review of the key issues they discuss. Then, a discussion of the shift the articles represent. Finally, why recognizing the shift matters.

Article 1: Sandberg and Grant begin with this well-known brain-teaser – a father and son are involved in a car accident: the father is killed and the son, seriously injured, is taken to hospital. At the hospital, the surgeon refuses to operate, saying, “I can’t operate, he’s my son.”

Forty to 75% of people still can’t work out that the reason the surgeon can’t operate is because she is his mother. So begins their recap of how unconscious biases about men’s and women’s capabilities result in  equally qualified women being passed over in hiring, promotion and pay decisions.

The key point in this article is that awareness that one has unconscious bias can in fact make it worse. It seems that if we think a behaviour is common, as unconscious bias is, then we have a tendency to accept it. Their advice is to be explicit that bias and unbalanced leadership are unacceptable.

Article 2: Focuses on the “speaking-up double bind” that most women have experienced: ten minutes after a woman introduces a new idea that nobody seems to have noticed, a man repeats the same idea, winning the acclaim of those present.  And while males who speak up are seen as 10% more competent than their peers, women who do the same are seen as 14% less competent and are more likely to be labelled ‘aggressive’. So women face a dilemma as to whether or not to speak up. To counter this, Sandberg and Grant promote conversational tactics such as equal air time and no interruptions (behaviours associated with Collective Intelligence). The long term solution is gender balanced leadership, where “women’s voice” is equally prevalent.

Article 3: “Madam CEO, Get me a Coffee” explores expectations regarding women helping colleagues at work. Women who don’t help out face a backlash, and are seen as selfish, whereas men don’t experience the same expectations or attributions. They suggest that men help solve the problem by drawing attention to women’s contributions and stepping up to share the office support work.

Article 4: Sandberg and Grant argue that equality is not a zero-sum gain. Increased diversity in leadership doesn’t mean that men miss out, but that the increased profits that come from gender balanced leadership increase the pool of rewards and promotions. And they move out of the board room and into the bedroom with their report on research that shows that “couples who share chores equally have more sex.”

They point to a series of further benefits that come to Fortune 500 men who spend more time with their children, as well as doing the chores: they are more satisfied with their jobs, have lower blood pressure and less cardiovascular disease. Fathers who do an equal share of work at home have happier, more successful children and their daughters are less likely to limit their career aspirations. “For a girl to believe she has the same opportunities as boys, it makes a big difference to see Dad doing the dishes.”

They close their final article thus – “Many men who support equality hold back because they worry it’s not their battle to fight. It’s time for men and women alike to join forces in championing gender parity.”

The shift:
Articles such as these were not being published in The New York Times five years ago. 2010 was an important year: the  2010 Australian Women’s Leadership Census showed that women’s representation in senior leadership roles in Australia’s top 200 companies had stalled; and this was the global experience. The discussion in 2010 was one of frustration over the lack of progress.

A recent Sunday morning spent reviewing New York Times articles that showed up on a search for gender/women and work in early 2010 highlighted the progress we have made.

Kathryn Bigelow had just won the Oscar for best director and that took a fair bit of the column space. There were several obituaries for women who had held prominent roles in organizations. An equal number of articles reported on discrimination cases. One article, entitled “She works. They’re happy.” reported on couples where work and caring roles were reversed, another focused on why fewer women were choosing Wall St for their careers, one on increases in the number of female faculty at Harvard, and another profiled a successful senior executive. One focused on how to get tough with the Nanny, and yet another on how to build your brand through blogging, entitled “Honey, don’t bother Mommy. I’m too busy building my brand.”

None of these articles were co-authored, none looked at gender (ie men AND women), none looked at the evidence base, and none offered solutions. The Sandberg/Grant series symbolizes a significant shift in how we talk about gender balance in leadership.

Why recognizing the shift matters:
While we are not there yet, there have been many small gains. As the Progress Principle highlights, the ability to notice even small amounts of progress reduces the impact of setbacks, boosts positive emotions and engagement, and increases long-term performance outcomes. Let’s recognize each step forward.

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