What's holding women back in the workforce?

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook. Photo: pursuitist.com

It's a childhood scene that will be familiar to many: a young girl attempts to organise her fellow birthday party-goers into a performance for the attending grown-ups, only to be taken aside and chastised for being "too bossy".

That little girl grew up to be Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook. And such criticism of confident young girls as "bossy" or "pushy", while male peers who act the same way are praised as "outgoing" or "authoritative", is one of the main thrusts of Sandberg's ambitious new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which highlights the ways in which women are socialised and conditioned to pull back from success.

"Those are the things I did," she says, nodding, with a nostalgic if bittersweet laugh. "I put on plays, I organised birthday parties."

Sandberg grew up in North Miami Beach, Florida. The eldest of three children, Sandberg's higher-education experience was dotted with honours: at Harvard College she was the top graduating student in economics, and at Harvard Business School she earned her 1995 MBA with highest distinction.


Today, at 43, she is a 2012 Time magazine "100 Most Influential People in the World" listee who has clocked regular appearances in Fortune magazine's "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" and Forbes magazine's "100 Most Powerful Women" features. On paper, she's intimidating. In person, Sandberg is gently forthright, her tone friendly and thoughtful, and is fond of trailing off sentences with an airy rhetorical question.

I've come with other media to speak with Sandberg at Facebook's Californian HQ at Palo Alto ahead of her book's release. Wearing a chic black-and-white dress, and stopping often to slug Diet Coke from a giant reusable drink cup, Sandberg paces the room while addressing the problems holding back women in the workforce. Many of them – and this is where it gets controversial – are self-perpetuating: a lack of ambition, the desire to be liked rather than respected, a reticence to "sit at the table", as she puts it.

Sandberg makes the devastating point in Lean In that men are very adept at creating their own success, and studies back her up. A 2011 report by Europe's Institute of Leadership and Management found that only 31 per cent of male managers would admit self-doubt to others, compared to half of their female equivalents.

Men will often take opportunities that they are not totally qualified for, whereas women will wait until they feel completely qualified, often missing out in the meantime. (Women tend to apply for jobs only when they feel they have 100 per cent of the selection criteria covered; men are happy to take a punt with 60 per cent.) Men constantly agitate for promotion, whereas women passively await accolades and long for Prince Charming-like mentors to "discover them" – to such an extent that this behaviour is known as "tiara syndrome", according to Sandberg. "Someone's gonna just notice how great you are? Not gonna happen," she says. "You're going to have to create this yourself."

Yet, when women are upfront about their successes, they are less likely to be admired for it. A 2003 Columbia Business School study presented half a group of students with the real-life story of Heidi Roizen, a successful entrepreneur; it included statements like "outgoing personality ... and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector". The other half of the students were then presented with the same work history, only with "Heidi" switched to "Howard". When both groups were asked who they'd like to work with, Howard was considered vastly more appealing than Heidi, who the students felt would not be "the type of person you would want to hire or work for". Take-home message: successful, ambitious women are not likeable.

Sandberg is not pulling the rug out from underneath the sisterhood. She is, instead, merely stating the facts – and the facts are grim. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics social-trend report found that many women simply lack the self-confidence necessary to become leaders. "It has been suggested that women tend to be uncomfortable with self-promotion. Being more hesitant to promote themselves and their accomplishments may come across as a lack of confidence in their abilities," says the Women in Leadership report.

Even high-achieving businesswomen downplay their achievements: a poll of the 104 finalists of the 2012 Telstra Business Women's Awards in Australia found 92 per cent of respondents tended to talk about "we" rather than "me" when discussing their achievements. Whether they are concerned at being seen as overly ambitious or they see it as unseemly to boast, women frequently undersell their success.

Despite her achievements and A-type personality, Sandberg knows all about the phenomenon of women holding themselves back. In 2011, when Forbes put her at No. 5 in their "Most Powerful Women" list, Sandberg begged co-workers and friends to remove links to it from their social-media feeds, and shooshed anyone who tried to congratulate her. It took a reprimand from her long-time assistant to force her to be less reticent about accepting praise. "Stop – you're showing everyone how uncomfortable you are. When they say congratulations, start saying 'Thank you' and that's it,'' the assistant told Sandberg.

"I'm quite certain that had a man been on that list, he wouldn't have spent his week wandering around trying to get all the posts down," Sandberg says with a rueful laugh. "We are not comfortable with power as women."

When Sandberg urges women to "sit at the table", she means it – and she means it to apply to women at all levels of the workforce, not just for high-flying corporate executives like herself. "These differences in self-confidence matter and they play out every single day. When you go to a meeting, watch where people sit in a conference room. And what you will find is that more men will sit at the centre of the table, more men will sit at the table and more men will sit at the front of the room, whereas more women will sit on the side or not at the table [at all, but] in the back."

The idea that women might, in turn, be responsible for their lack of success could be seen as a red rag to the feminist movement – despite the fact Sandberg identifies her book as "a feminist manifesto". Leading Australian feminists, however, agree it is a fair suggestion. "Of course it is," says Anne Summers. "Women have to stop worrying about what people think about them. So what if you are seen as 'pushy'? So long as you get the job! Women should pursue their dreams actively and as aggressively as is needed – in all areas of their lives."

Eva Cox offers a similar response. "Yes, we are supposed to be nice, polite and supportive, and are punished when we fail to be," she says. "If Sandberg's book and movement puts that conditioning on the agenda, it will be very useful."

Starting a discussion is precisely what Sandberg hopes Lean In will achieve. "I want this to be a real conversation, but I want this to be action," she says adamantly. "I want the next time someone's in a [performance] review, and someone says, 'She's too aggressive', to take a pause and think about what that means."

That Sandberg – a mother of two children – advocates for women to pursue family as well as professional success makes it easy to see Lean In as a variation on that modern conundrum: can women have it all?

Sandberg – who, incidentally, thinks the "having it all" debate is "the worst thing that ever happened to women" – considers revolutionising childcare and paid maternity leave of vital importance. "We thought we changed the workforce, because we said it was going to be equal opportunity, but we didn't change the responsibilities in the home or address these penalties that women face. So we didn't really change [either], but because we thought we did, we're surprised. Our revolution has stalled; 10 years of no progress for women at the top of any industry in the world is a very serious problem."

Like newly appointed Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer, who famously only took two weeks' leave after giving birth, Sandberg has faced criticism for discussing these issues from a privileged viewpoint. The argument runs that it's very easy for Sandberg to campaign for working mothers, as she has access to nannies and domestic help that women in the lower rungs of business could only dream of.

But surely it would be worse if these powerful women didn't talk about the realities of being working mothers at all? Is this just another illustration of the ways in which women are – as Sandberg says in Lean In – damned if they do and doomed if they don't? "Most working women have neither the incomes nor the support these women enjoy," says Summers. "But at least if women at the top are speaking out for other women, and are calling for women's equality, their voices might be useful. We just should not make the mistake of thinking that their success will necessarily 'trickle down'."

And that's an undeniable fact. In Australia, women hold just 29 per cent of the 226 seats in federal parliament. It gets worse in the corporate sector, where women hold roughly 9 per cent of board seats and executive officer positions, and there are a mere 12 female CEOs of companies in the ASX 500. The criticism of Sandberg for talking about these issues from such a platform speaks to a near-universal problem society has with women in power. "Real change will come when powerful women are less of an exception," Sandberg writes in Lean In. "It is easy to dislike senior women because there are so few."

Of course, working women who seek to broaden their achievements are often forced to work within a business model that is geared towards the needs of men: longer working hours and no consideration of the time needed to help raise a family. Indeed, the aforementioned ABS report illustrates that point clearly: it found that a woman working full-time spends, on average, six hours and 39 minutes each day taking care of children, whereas her male equivalent spends three hours and 43 minutes actively parenting.

Sandberg has an answer for that, too. "I wanted it to be a book for men as well as women," she says. "It's for all of us to try to work on these things together. It's not going to happen if we don't."

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (WH Allen) by is out on March 18.


Sheryl Sandberg shares some of her key points.

Sit at the table. Don't take a backseat in the work environment; be more confident that you have the same right to be there as male counterparts, and grab opportunities even if you're not sure you are qualified.

Don't get hung up on being liked. Successful women are considered pushy, but don't hold back from pursuing success; own your achievements publicly.

It's a jungle gym, not a ladder. Accepting roles in different areas and challenging yourself can lead to even greater success than pursuing the path you had planned.

Are you my mentor? Don't sit and wait for Prince Charming to appear; pursue the excellence that will make mentors see your potential and want to help you achieve it.

Make your partner a real partner. Make sure your partner is supportive of your goals and dreams, and agree on a fair division of parenting.

Don't leave before you leave. Even if you've made the decision to have children, keep moving forward in the workplace.


  • These types of articles are really resonating with me at the moment. Growing up I was told I could do it all, but all the examples around me showed that was not possible. Talk about mixed messages. I never knew what career I wanted, but I knew I would want a family. I did the math on what a 'high achiever' like myself would spend on years of study and realised that by the time I had a family I would be in the early and ripe stages of a career. So I never gave myself the chance, and I leaned out. Far out. I did work that would one day suit a family lifestyle so I would never be exhausted by doing everything and unsatisfied by never doing everything fully well either.
    Now at 37, I feel like I want a do over. I want to start leaning in . But am lost and feel so far behind, I don't even know where to start.
    Yes, I did get married, have 3 great kids (still little) but I am starting to look for other horizons. I have about 35 years left to contribute to the workforce and I wonder what they will be?

    Date and time
    March 18, 2013, 10:49AM
    • Your problems aren't specific to being a woman. As a father I face the exact same choices. I'm currently working a 4 day week which means there's zero chance of promotion. I've chosen to give up moving up the ladder as I think time with my daughter is too precious to give up. You never get that time to see them growing again. If you miss it, it's gone forever. I think you should be happy that at only 37 you have 3 kids. I know I would be. I'm 36 and am still yet to have my second, yet alone third.

      Date and time
      March 18, 2013, 12:09PM
  • As a male leader, I've had to get used to the idea that the people who work under me may not and in some cases, definitely won't like me.

    You have to choose to either be someone who needs other's approval, or to be a leader who can make choices even if others don't approve of them.

    That's a hard thing for anyone, but getting past that is absolutely critical to taking responsibility required for a leadership role. You can't have it both ways.

    Date and time
    March 18, 2013, 11:17AM
    • I'm very much looking forward to reading the book. Quite interesting that Lean In seems to say that it's at least partly women's fault that they aren't as prominent in the executive suite as men, quite contrary to the message that usually gets pushed here about women being held down by the patriarchy. In fact of the 6 key points outlined above most relate to women being more confident and less passive in the workplace.

      Date and time
      March 18, 2013, 11:28AM
      • @Hurrow, I'm afraid it's not as black and white as that. What Sandberg is saying is that it's not so much women who hold themselves back but the very real perception that if they don't act at least a little meek then it won't go well for them in their careers. It's not all in women's minds - it's real - women are just reacting to it and negotiating it as best they can.
        This is from an interview Sandberg did with Jezebel -
        "No. I want to be clear. This is not about women being wrong, or blaming women, or women having perception problems. The point of Lean In is that we don't have perception problems. This is a problem. You know, a man can negotiate and say, "I've done this for the company, I deserve x." And everyone feels great about it. A woman does that exact same thing, and there is a penalty she pays. Women do not negotiate for themselves as often as men or as effectively as men. That is not because women are not smart. It is because women intuitively or implicitly understand the penalty they pay for self-negotiation. That is what we need to fix."

        Date and time
        March 18, 2013, 11:38AM
      • @Sheba - I read the Time article on it last week and a lot of what she was pushing there was that many women "lean out". They don't feel like they have as much to say, they aren't as confident, they worry about whether people like them, they take a backseat or don't aim as high in their careers because of the possibility of having children even if they don't have a partner. Those are all things that women need to change if they want to be more successful at work. Yes there is often a price to pay in terms of popularity of how you are perceived, but if more women start adopting some of the changes that the author proposes then it will just become the norm rather than an outlier.

        Date and time
        March 18, 2013, 11:54AM
      • @Sheba. I don't think the CEO of Westpac, Gail Kelly, would agree with you. In fact, when I've heard her speak, she's said the opposite. She's said that she works differently from men in being more of a collaborator and that it's brought added value to Westpac and her career. Her advice was to "not" try to be like a man (or anyone else) but to focus on one's own strengths and way of doing things.

        Date and time
        March 18, 2013, 12:12PM
    • James - It is probably why Gail Kelly is not listed in no. 5 of "Most Powerful Women". If she acts like a man, she will make it to the list. I was raised with 2 older brothers so I was lucky to be a tomboy and am not afraid act like a man and self promoting myself as I learnt it from my older brothers. At 36, I was made regional senior manager at a multinational company whilst having a 2 yrs old. I now have 2 kids. The secret? Outsource: I have au-pair nanny who look after him (cost half of qualified nanny) and I have home made food cook by someone else (pay to a friend who does not run restaurant or takeaway so cost less than a takeaway food but still healthy) and pay weekly cleaner to clean the house. I did this since day one I start to work (and earning a peanut salary) as you don't have to have lost of money to afford weekly cleaner (shop around to get best deals - start from your local newspaper). You have to learn to outsource everything like man so you can concentrate on your career. I did 60 hours work (and only get paid for 40 hours) when I was junior. When you got into senior level, you become valuable enough to the company that they let you work from home often and won't raise eyebrow when you left office at 5pm! So at top level, you can have balance cos you can still have lunch and take a nap with your kids almost daily! Woman - you can have it all! Learn from men and outsource everything without guilt. Live is so much better at the top! GO GIRLS!

      Date and time
      March 18, 2013, 3:00PM
      • Go Blessed! Outsourcing the menial tasks sounds like an excellent solution to finding the time to a career as well as a family.

        My experience in a male dominated workplace is contrary to most other people commenting, i.e. if youre willing to devote yourself to a career then being female is actually an advantage.

        Most MBA required entry scores are lower for women than for men. Last I looked significantly lower for Melbourne University. Significant effort has been made to try to "rebalance" genders at higher levels of management. I wonder if this is still called "positive discrimination".

        Anyway the attributes of hard work, communication and quality smarts has never been gender specific, maybe men just play the game differently.

        Date and time
        March 18, 2013, 4:29PM
        • I think women that are succeeding need to be celebrated no matter how badly women as a group are doing. I also think that figures of less than 50% dominance of careers and vocations should be celebrated.

          Don't get me wrong - I am all for as much education, encouragement and guidance for girls as they can get and I would not begrudge women 55% - but the likelihood is having any children will adversely affect a woman's career in comparison to a man's and a man is more likely to have the incentive to succeed - not being able to bear children.

          Fact is women reward successful men with stable relationships and children when their sisters are trying to compete with them. And men continue to not care if their female partner works.

          So - with hopes and efforts for improvement in the statistics in the future - it should be about those actual real, existing women who obviously have had the will and the drive and the talent to succeed in their field - no matter how few.

          Particularly at this time of reliable contraception and the need to get our population under control - there is ample opportunity for actual individual women to be as successful in any field they choose - as they can be. And show men how it's done pretty regularly.

          Moreover Humanity will need all the assistance women can give to solve the serious problems Humanity will face this century. It should not just be about women as a group trying to make as much money as men as a group - surely?

          Loved it Clem.

          Thanks again.

          GRW Dasign
          Date and time
          March 18, 2013, 4:33PM
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