Thursday, July 21, 2011

Somewhat Haphazardly-Organized Thoughts on Girls and Leadership

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a TED Talk a while back, which I watched; I was impressed with her poise and interesting opinions (but then again, which TED speaker doesn't have those qualities?)  Her talk helped answer a very important question: why we have too few women leaders.

I would like to challenge, however, the widely held idea that since girls aren't becoming leaders as a result of naturally being less boastful, entitled, and commanding than most boys, girls need to start assuming those qualities in order to become CEOs. (That's paraphrased). This does, however, seem to be the idea-- girls don't speak up enough, take the lead enough, boast enough.

As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out, when girls try to be commanding, it's called bossy. When a girl boasts about her personal appearance or her latest work, it's being a show-off, etc. (This is all speaking in very general terms, mind you. If you haven't already watched Sheryl Sandberg's speech, do, otherwise the rest of this will be confusing). So we need to stop criticizing girls for the qualities we praise in boys.

On average (according to Sandberg) most men tend to brag about their own accomplishments and negotiate for raises far more aggressively than most women (I can tell you about people for whom this generalization does not apply, my parents being essentially the reverse of that description); when asked why they are successful, men (keep in mind the generalization here) will say that it was because of their accomplishments and hard work, whereas women will say they got lucky or they were helped along by amazing coworkers, etc. And society tends to dislike women who will buck the trend and assertively negotiate for a raise.

This is all statistically supported and that is the general trend. So what is it that I disagree with in Sheryl Sandberg's speech?

The problem I see with this is that I felt the underlying message is that women need to be more like men in order to succeed in what is still a men-dominated area (business). It needs to be okay for women to brag, to ask for raises, to be aggressive. Sandberg focused more on making society accept women when we do those things; rather than changing our expectations of what a CEO should do.

My thinking? Don't we need more CEOs who don't fly out the window with a golden parachute?

Don't we need more people in the world to stop talking about themselves and start thinking about others?

Don't we need more people who thank others profusely?

It's time we stop saying that girls need to change, and adopt those behaviors; it's time to say that boys could learn from girls. CEOs of top companies could probably use a dose of not-asking-for-raise behavior and less self-entitlement, rather than us trying to change girls in order to fit into the common mold of what we think a CEO looks like. I give speeches quite a lot about how often negatively-portrayed behaviors common to children (i.e., impulsivity and naivete) may be positive behaviors in some situations, leading to unfettered imagination and problem-solving.

Maybe these often negatively-portrayed behaviors statistically common to women are positive things. We all love people who give credit to others for their success. Companies would probably do better with CEOs who didn't blow their own horn and ask for ridiculous salaries and new yachts every year.

In her talk, Sandberg shared an anecdote of her college European Intellectual History class, where her classmate Carrie avidly read the original works in Latin and Greek and attended all the lectures; Sandberg read them in English and attended most of the lectures; and Sandberg's brother read one book out of twelve, went to a couple of lectures, and received last-minute tutoring from Sandberg and the highly studious classmate before taking the test.

After coming out of the test, they asked each other how they did. Carrie, the undoubtedly most prepared of the three, said (quoting from the speech here), "Boy, I feel like I didn't really draw out the main point on the Hegelian dialectic." And I [Sandberg] say, "God, I really wish I had really connected John Locke's theory of property with the philosophers that follow." And my brother says, "I got the top grade in the class." "You got the top grade in the class? You don't know anything."

To me, Sandberg's speech went on to emphasize why society should make it possible for girls to have "I got top grade in the class" behavior.

My point is that the bragging brother should take a dose of humility, instead.


By the way, I totally agree with Sandberg's point that we need to stop demonizing girls for taking the lead in business/political/etc. situations. I'm not saying that girls shouldn't be confident. However, I'm saying that we need to change our expectations for CEOs (aggressive, assertive, etc.) from the current definition to one that more closely matches the best qualities of girls and boys. So--let's stop trying to get girls to change. Let's focus on changing our society.


  1. I do agree with your point. However, girls do need to step up a bit and feel more confidence in themselves. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance; confidence is required to be a leader, arrogance is not. Sandberg says that most male leaders lean toward the arrogant side (like her brother), but if the boys are brought down to level of (average) girls at this time, it wouldn't be leadership. Therefore, I still think Sandberg's points stand valid; girls need to step up and take action to climb up the ladder. However, it wouldn't be a bad idea at all to change the world's view of girls. Otherwise, the boys still might not know where the women's room is.

  2. Anonymous8:51 AM

    It depends on the effectiveness of the type of leadership in a situation or organization. For example, if I go into a battle, I would prefer a male-dominated aggressive commander. In another situation a feminine type of leadership might be more preferred. Unfortunately the male type of leadership is preferred in most corporations. Hope that makes sense.

  3. Excellent blog post. After watching the TED Talk previously I found it unsettling and your post hit the nail on the head.

  4. Adora, thank you for this post. We need to invent new definitions for a lot of out dated roles in society. I would love to point you to a post on the Cooperative Catalyst,

    and invite you to join us, when you have time. We need more people to start imagine different ways to live and live together not reforming outdated systems of thinking and being.

    Also would be interested to hear you views about this...
    What if schools did away with Transcripts?

    David Loitz