The Meritocracy Myth: Why Entrepreneurship Is Better Than 'Leaning In' to a Brick Wall

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I’m a big believer in the topic of “leaning in” and am grateful for the discussion that Sheryl Sandberg has sparked among women, industry and leadership in general. Women are told to lean in to their careers in order to challenge the status quo and achieve success. But leaning in to prevailing systems that are inflexible and outdated doesn’t always work. In fact, leaning into a company or culture that isn’t ready for change can feel overwhelming and insurmountable.

Not surprisingly, gender disparity is pervasive and wide-reaching, particularly in the creative, tech and advertising industries, whose board seats and corner offices are predominately filled by men. For women at these companies, leaning in may not only feel frustrating—it may be unrewarding.

Related: It's Time to Close the Workplace Gender Gap

According to The Center for American Progress, while women earn the majority of undergraduate degrees in our nation, they account for only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles and hold just 16.9 percent of board seats for these companies. Moreover, although women control 80 percent of consumer spending in the United States, they constitute a mere 3 percent of creative directors in advertising. What is shocking across leadership positions is even more concentrated in the design, tech and advertising industries.

Well-known self-selection bias makes the lived experience of women in these industries more frustrating than mere numbers can convey. If the majority of leadership positions are filled by men, the cycle is perpetuated, making it more imperative that women embrace entrepreneurship to create their own businesses. Women-owned businesses have the power to disrupt, or at least balance out, traditionally male-led industries.

Not just numbers, it's daily life.

Many years ago, after being accepted to the prestigious University of Washington Design Program, bright-eyed and eager, I stepped into the department and became keenly aware of the fact that there was only one woman on the staff. What did this indicate about the state of the industry?

The observation lingered, but I charged forward with the tenacity instilled by my parents, who owned a small business and who imparted a “work hard; don’t make waves” spirit to their children.  At that time, I naively believed I could carve out my own space within the creative industry, that my gender would be an asset rather than a liability.

But walking into my first job after college, the familiar pattern of gender disparity repeated itself. At a leading manufacturing company, I owned the packaging design for a top consumer brand and was the only woman on the team. Contemplating the managerial positions and the C-Suite, from the design director to the marketing director, the CEO to the CIO, all of these positions were held by men. This pattern became the norm for subsequent creative roles in which I found myself.

Related: The 4 Biggest Myths Discouraging Women From Tech Careers

From my perspective at the company, no one above me looked like me. That was a problem. There is real power in seeing role models at the top who reflect your own qualities. As the adage goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”

The argument today is that women should lean in and take a seat at the table, and to an extent I agree, but it is disheartening when almost no one at the head of that table looks or sounds like you. It is harder to lean in to a company or culture where a path to career advancement doesn’t seem to exist for you. If you can’t see yourself at the top, the route to it becomes ill defined, unattainable and at worst, demoralizing.

To sit at the head of the table, build your own table.

I finally embarked on my own path fifteen years into my career. After managing teams, driving internal initiatives, building global brands and launching products at a major corporation, there still didn’t seem to be the significant path to leadership that I desired. While I had held mid-level managerial positions, senior leadership was beyond my reach. The leadership of the manufacturing company and agency where I had worked were both over 90 percent male, and at this point I knew that if I wanted to become a leader, I had to create my own path and be the leader.

During the economic downturn of 2009, arguably the riskiest time to abandon one’s job security, I founded Rational Interaction. A year later, my close friend and former colleague, Joseph Debons (I often refer to him as my brother from another mother), joined as my business partner. Together, we created a company and the path to our future that we desired. Our digital agency was not only new in that it embraced females in leadership roles, but it also blended traditionally siloed lines of business: digital, consulting, and technology practices. It wasn’t enough to just create a new career for ourselves; given the opportunity to chart our own course, we also wanted to create a new type of agency.

At Rational, we make a point of empowering and growing women in leadership positions. Unlike the companies and agencies within my past, Rational has a very strong female leadership presence. Our design, marketing, project management, recruiting and one of our top consulting teams are all led by women.

Had I leaned in more aggressively during my previous roles, I may have eventually reached a senior leadership position, but almost all of the seats at that table would have still been filled by men. For women struggling to find your voices within their chosen industries and professions, it’s important to evaluate your current career path and decide just how progressive it is. Ask yourself these hard questions: Do you see women in senior leadership roles? Do you see your female colleagues being passed up for promotions over their male counterparts? Do you feel comfortable asking for what you feel you deserve?

Marginalized populations sometimes don’t even realize they are being discriminated against and this makes it even more insidious. The truth is that women need to work even harder for equal treatment.

"Leaning in'' is prudent advice if the company or industry in which we find ourselves is adaptive to change, receptive to the value of having women in leadership roles. It is wise to take a seat at those tables and dive deep into that work. But for some, becoming an entrepreneur is a way to drive their own destiny, without having to deal with industry, gender or other barriers. For male-dominated industries like technology and advertising, it’s a powerful and fulfilling path.

Related: Leaning In: The 10 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned Businesses