The Washington Post

Will we ever “like” the female CEO?

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., center, speaks during a television interview on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (Simon Dawson/BLOOMBERG)

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”).

"Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf)

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.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

The fate of the modern ideas festival

Marissa Mayer’s bet-the-company gamble

Q&A | Cory Doctorow on ‘the dirty secret about geeking out’

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.



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