Even before the official publication date of her new book "Lean In" - which suggests that women need to become more aggressive at work if they want to become leaders one day — Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has re-ignited the online debate over the role of women in the workplace. Last week, of course, it was Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer who set the Web abuzz with her decision to ban telecommuting options for her workers — a move that didn’t exactly go over well with feminists and working moms, among others. Two of the most powerful women in corporate America are suddenly at the center of an ongoing debate — whether willingly or unwillingly — about why there are so few women leaders and what women need to do to become successful in the workplace.
So, why is it so hard to get this right?
It seems like anytime a female leader makes a tough business decision or climbs the corporate ladder too soon, too fast it immediately draws a negative response. The problem, quite simply, is one that Sandberg identified in her groundbreaking TED speech - "Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders."
In that speech, which has gone on to rack up nearly 2 million views, Sandberg suggested that, for women, there was a negative correlation between “likability” and workplace success. The more that women do to achieve things in the workplace, such as Marissa Mayer shutting down the telecommuting option to turn Yahoo around, the more they are perceived as unlikable. To make matters worse, this is exactly the opposite of the situation for men, where there is a positive correlation between “likability” and workplace accomplishment.
Think about that for a second and you’ll see why it’s so hard to “like” any female who’s earned the right to a corner office. Through some weird wiring of our brains, every single step that we applaud in men seeking to advance their careers, staying late at the office, aggressively pursuing new clients, prioritizing face-time at the office over face-time with the kids, takes on a whole new meaning when women attempt this. Sandberg points to a Harvard Business School case study, in which changing a single word in the case — “Heidi” to “Howard” — fundamentally changes the way B-school students perceive the actions of the participants. In short, actions that draw a big thumbs-up for men (”Howard) are given a big thumbs-down for women (”Heidi”).
To ever get to the point where we “like” the female CEO, we will continue to need technological innovations that open up new opportunities for the advancement of women leaders. And these tech innovations don’t require a knowledge of rocket science or an Ivy League MBA to get right. Take Facebook, for example. You could argue that an online social network such as Facebook has fundamentally changed the way women network for career advancement. Instead of being encouraged to do something their male co-workers might do, such as aggressively stalking the hallways of a convention center with business cards — an action likely to be perceived as “unlikable” — women can now network comfortably behind a computer screen and find like-minded women who can help and mentor them.
These innovations subtly change society’s perceptions of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Nobody cares if you have 1,000 Facebook friends, but people start to get a bit nervous if they see a woman handing out 1,000 business cards at an event. That’s why Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban the telecommuting option for Yahoo workers hit a raw nerve for so many proponents of female empowerment in the workplace. Telecommuting, itself the product of technological innovation, seemed to address the whole negative correlation problem that women face every day in the workplace. Technological innovation, in the form of Skype, laptop computers, smart phones and broadband Internet connectivity at home, suddenly leveled the playing field for women. Instead of having to stay late at the office, work weekends or hand over the upbringing of their children to total strangers, women could “have it all.” They could do the same amount of work as men at the office, while still not slacking off when it came to family responsibilities.
There’s still a lot to be done, of course, before the Old Boy’s Club fully opens up to women. However, thanks to new technological innovations in everything from social networking to video teleconferencing, we may eventually have a society where women leaders are not just “liked,” but beloved by their workers.
Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.
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