Is this what Sheryl Sandberg meant when she said ‘Lean In’?


BEVERLY HILLS, CA – NOVEMBER 20: Co-Chair of Disney Media Networks and President of Disney/ABC Television Group Anne Sweeney speaks onstage during the Girls Inc. Los Angeles Celebration Luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel on November 20, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images)

Ann Sweeney is walking away from her job as “the most powerful woman in Hollywood” to direct television.

Asked whether she wanted CEO Robert Iger’s job when he stepped down in 2016,  the president of Disney-ABC Television Group’s $12 billion empire told the Hollywood Reporter “That wasn’t the job I wanted to pursue.”

When her contract with Disney ends next January, Sweeney will leave the company to explore her creative side.

“[T]here has always been a nagging voice in the back of my head pushing me to step out of the comfort zone of the executive ranks and more directly into the creative arena that enticed me to TV in the first place,” Sweeney told Deadline.com. “I finally listened to that voice and thought, ‘if not now, when?’ I know my decision to step back from all of this to learn the art of Directing may seem surprising, but to me it’s a long realized dream.”

Facebook COO and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg is one of the rumored possible successors to Iger.

Sweeney’s decision to leave the corporate ladder a rung shy of the top doesn’t exactly fit with Sandberg’s prescription for female achievement in the workplace. But Sweeney could do just as much for women behind the scenes as in the boardroom.

With women in lead roles in just 15 percent of top films in 2013, it’s hard to argue that Hollywood doesn’t need more female storytellers.

“If there’s gender inertia behind the scenes…you will find gender inertia onscreen,” Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, told the New York TimesThe percentage of female speaking roles has not increased much since the 1940s when they hovered around 25 percent to 28 percent, Lauzen said.

Hollywood’s leading ladies aren’t happy with the status quo. We have to do a better job of representing different lifestyles and women in empowered roles because literally everyone is seeing this stuff that we [in Hollywood] put out.” actress Olivia Wilde said at a recent panel on the “State of Female Justice.”  Cate Blanchett added her voice to the fray in her speech accepting the Oscar for Best Actress earlier this month. Blanchett blasted Hollywood for treating women as a “niche” audience. “They are not,” Blanchett said. “Audiences want to see them. In fact, they earn money.”

“The whole system is geared for [women] to fail,” Sony co-chair Amy Pascal told Forbes in an interview last year.  For her part, Pascal is concerned that Sweeney’s departure leaves a “large, woman-sized hole” in Hollywood’s top executive ranks.

“The best way to have more women telling stories about and for women is to have more women at the top controlling the purse strings,” Pascal said, citing the central premise of “Lean In.” “Did Sweeney have an obligation to stay? Of course not. One of Sandberg’s favorite mantras is “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” For Sweeney, that answer is clearly be a TV director. But Iger also doesn’t have an obligation to replace her with another female executive. So maybe we can all be inspired by Sweeney’s guts. Hopefully, some women will take that inspiration and ride it all the way to the C-level suites. Here’s hoping that in her new job, Sweeney brings her skill and energy to shows with amazing women characters.”

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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