I have invested much of my life encouraging women to lead, to invest, to create companies, to contribute to the health of our economy and society. I have invested at least as much time teaching those in positions of power that empowering women makes economic, business, financial and social sense. At times it has felt like working against a strong undercurrent, but lately I feel the tides shifting. Women are leaning in and seeking positions of power with more force than ever before and a growing number of high profile leaders are also leaning into the global dialogue on closing the gender gap. Some are making a sincere effort and taking concrete steps to release the value of women at work. The growing momentum around women’s empowerment is encouraging, but the dearth of women at the upper echelons of the corporate world speaks volumes about the challenges that remain.
The media has taken great interest in these issues and presents us with stories that range from “too few women in the boardroom” to “female executives opting-out.” There are abundant theories as to why we still have so few women in positions of power and why women may be opting out of the corporate world, and there is a measurable difference in the views of men and women on both issues.
If you ask a male leader he is likely to explain that the issue has a lot to do with the pipeline. There are too few women with the right and relevant background and experience to assume positions in the C-suite or in the boardroom in general. If you ask an experienced female executive she is likely to offer up explanations that have to do with the nature of corporate culture that has been developed largely by men and therefore caters better to their needs and at times fails to meet the needs of women who seek to find not just profit, but also purpose in their work.
The shortage of women at the top of organizational leadership is now an issue that all forward-thinking leaders are concerned with. Many organizations are making sincere efforts to develop its female talent and develop its culture to better support a diverse workforce. Yet, the numbers remain at token levels and we are still far from reaching gender balance at the highest levels of power across society.
Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” discussed the barriers to advancement women face in their careers and ways to empower women to break through those barriers. Sandberg has since reflected on the difficulties single women with children must face.
Two leading businesswomen entered the global dialogue on these issues with great force. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, encourages women to lean in, offers the data to support why this is important and effectively addresses some of the challenges, such as unconscious bias. Arianna Huffington, a successful entrepreneur who personally faced the costs of leaning-in so hard that she collapsed, encourages women (and men) to make it the first priority to take care of themselves, and suggests we redefine success to allow for life and good health, and not just work.
In countless conversations around the world I have observed people polarized around one school of thought or the other, i.e. Lean In OR Opt Out to Thrive. I have personally never agreed with the tyranny of either-or at work or in life and choose to embrace the beauty of both. Women should absolutely lean in, embrace power and influence and ask for more. They should however make sure not to do so at the expense of their own health or that of their families or society at large. Hence, women should lean-in but not necessarily adopt the rules of the game without at least questioning them. The very value of diversity is our ability to avoid sameness, our ability to innovate and think of ways that people, women and men, are able to choose both work and life, both profit and purpose and both wealth and health, as the former isnÂ´t really worth much without the latter.