Does Sandberg Let Corporations Continue Discrimination Against Women?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's "movement" gives corporate America an easy out on promoting women, argues DiversityInc's Barbara Frankel in a first-person column.

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean InBy Barbara Frankel

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In comes out today, and it has been lighting up social media and Sunday talk shows with its concept that women have to “try harder” and not rely on their employers or their mentors to look out for them.

As a woman who has fought for three decades in the workplace for a seat at the table—and who now sees my 28-year-old daughter and several young women I mentor facing similar struggles—I agree with Sandberg that too many women give up too easily as the challenges of family and work become overwhelming. But Sandberg’s simplistic solution of urging women to take control of themselves and join “Lean In Circles” to bolster each other ignores the reality that most workplace inequities aren’t caused by the victims, but by the institutions and those in power who benefit from continuity.

In other words, we shouldn’t let corporate America off the hook for the lack of women in senior management.

Consider this: Women account for just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs; at DiversityInc Top 50 companies, which are significantly more progressive for race and ethnicity, women do only slightly better: 6 percent of CEOs. Women account for 20 percent of the top level at Fortune 500 companies (CEO and direct reports) and 24 percent at DiversityInc Top 50 companies.

So as someone who came of age in the 1970s, when full equality seemed imminent (to those who read Ms. Magazine religiously, as I did), I have to wonder: What happened?

Corporate Hubris

I understand Sandberg’s points on not being passive about leadership and on women making their own success. But the message sent by corporate America has been ambiguous, to say the least. On the one hand, many companies have been singing their own praises for their “flexible” workplaces and how great they are for women—while still having very different promotion tracks for those who can’t travel globally for weeks at a time, who may not want to be connected 24/7, or who have more inclusive styles of leadership.

I cannot tell you the number of women—including several I know who are in their 20s—who use the word “compromise” when describing their life choices. I did it myself in my 20s, choosing to be a big fish in a little pond (a local newspaper) instead of pursuing my dream of working for a major newspaper. You know the story: husband, kids, aging parents, house, dog, cat, etc. We can “have it all,” but with a price—our dreams, our sanity and often our health.

Unlike Sandberg, I don’t fault the women who continue to make these choices. I fault a society that doesn’t offer reasonable childcare (from a financial and an emotional perspective) and I fault corporate America, including many of those companies that bill themselves as leaders for women.

A Real Example

The few companies that are trying to really level the playing field for women understand that they aren’t there yet. I moderated a panel last week on women branding themselves and having more “executive presence.” One of the speakers was Maria Castañón Moats, the Chief Diversity Officer of PricewaterhouseCoopers. PwC is No. 1 on the 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 list, and for good reason—this is a company that continually challenges itself on how inclusive it actually is and never, ever rests on its laurels.

Maria talked about how PwC is working diligently to get its senior partners, still mostly white men, to connect more with younger women in the organization and how multifaceted and ongoing their organizational efforts are. This is a company that literally helps women (and men) plan their families every step of the way. Their numbers of women in management show a remarkable story of progress, one we rarely see in other companies. I’m not speaking loosely here; we have almost 900 companies participating in the DiversityInc Top 50 this year and the progress for women into the senior levels is pretty slow across the board.

But most companies don’t have the self-awareness of PwC. Instead, they put their names out there with big media splashes and then refuse to really address the systemic and inherent sexism in their organizations.

Sandberg’s Lean In project has “launch partners” including American Express, Google, Sony and Johnson & Johnson, according to The New York Times. Not sure exactly what that support involves beyond money, but I’d like to see those companies publicly disclose exactly how they are helping women move up and stay up—including hard numbers.

There’s a lot of criticism of Sandberg because she’s wealthy, works in Silicon Valley, has a supportive husband and lots of help. I’m not faulting her for her success or for her desires to share her ideas with other women. But if we let companies just buy their way to being “good for women,” things are never going to really get “good for women.”

My daughter’s getting married later this year and talks about having kids in a couple of years. She’s bright, she’s beautiful and she would be a major asset anywhere she goes.  But if the responsibility of doing it all falls entirely on her shoulders, she’ll probably follow in the footsteps of generations before her and compromise. And then we’ll be looking at 20 percent women in the top level of Fortune 500 companies for a long time.

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  • Thank you, Barbara Frankel, for writing from the longer view.

    For ones of us who started careers in the early 1970s, nurtured businesses (our own and others’) and family (children, parents, relatives, grandchildren), and colleagues, and faced the vicissitudes of life (fire, wind, flood, accident, illness, economic boom-and-bust) and now have the perspective of four decades as working women, “leaning in” seems the least of it. I’d say “working on” is the triumph.

  • Robyn Snyder

    Sandberg article,

    Unfortunately, no one is addressing the issue of the spouse. Lucky she has a supportive spouse who is willing to be without her, without considering having an affair, and or even helping with any housework, laundry, kids, dogs etc. Until mothers train their sons that they need to help around the house and not be part of the problem then I don’t see things changing unless you make tons of money and can afford to have a full time maid and Nanny. Also if you are constantly on travel who is actually raising your kids, and the husband says out of sight out of mind. She must be pretty lucky to have found the perfect husband, but I can tell you that when I come back from even a week of travel, the house is a total wreck, and I have to pick up, clean up on top of unpacking and doing laundry. I would say that I don’t see the role of women as the primary care giver changing anytime soon, and only those who decide to take the career path over the family path is going to get to the top..not to mention you better be brillant and not just smart. She was brillant going to let’s get real here..we are talking about an elite group of women. Most women would be happy if they could just get paid the same as their male counterparts and get promoted just as often.

  • Barbara,

    I agree Corporate has a way to go. But coming from Sandberg’s Point of View, you can’t control an institution to change (yet). You can’t convince the government to further mandate change (yet). If we look at the heart of her idea; women owning and advocating what they want and explaining why they get, wouldn’t that better influence corporations when their own workforces ask for it, especially if those workforces are the treasured talent of the firm?

    I think the goal of corporate getting there (offering the environment to avoid compromise) is the same, but Sheryl knows, 10 years of trying and little progress, it may be better to do it grassroots instead of top down.

    • Barbara Frankel

      There’s nothing wrong with women advocating for themselves—although very few have the educational and financial advantages Sandberg has to ease that path. But 13 years of studying workplace inequities and looking at the progress (or lack of progress) of thousands of companies show us that without directives from the top and firm goals and plans to increase representation, little or no progress is made. Women can do everything right—including all of the techniques Sandberg advocates—and NOTHING will happen. Barbara Frankel, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, DiversityInc

  • I agree with Sandberg’s urging for women to control the part they have control over – their own perspective and ambition and not to settle for less than they want for themselves. But that is only one part of the equation. I am concerned that once again, the solution to the ‘problem’ is for women to fix themselves without the responsibility for organizations to examine the barriers and uneven playing field they create for women (and others who don’t ‘fit’ mainstream). Clearly both need to be honest and show effort to change the status quo.

  • This is really simple. While Luke is talking about reality. Others are talking about the way things should be. Give me reality any day.

    If all it took was “leaning in”, don’t we think more women (and miniorities) would be where they should be?

    It’ll take way more than leaning in to rise where the powers that be have absolutely. no. intention. of. allowing. you. to. do. so.

    If you don’t see the likes of you already there, chances are very great you are not what they envision as belonging there.

    So wake up, smell the coffee, and before too many frustrating and demoralizing years go by, go where the door is open and people (demonstratively) put their money where their mouths are.

    • Luke Visconti

      Exactly. The women and/or non-white people who have achieved spots of power “leaned in” far more than the white men at the same level. Only a chump continues to play a game that’s rigged. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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