Gender Bias

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In 2.0 and Corporate Gender Bias

Research finds we are still 100 years away from gender equality in the C-suite. That's unacceptable.
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In 2.0 and Corporate Gender Bias

Sheryl Sandberg

Image credit: Allison Shelley | Getty Images

It is now more than three years since Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote her ground-breaking book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. “Lean In,” I believe, is shorthand for “Go for it, if you want it.”

In her book, Sandberg acknowledges that there are many systemic obstacles to the advancement of women in corporate America. However, her focus is what women can do to maximize their chance of success in spite of these obstacles.

Well, more and more women are leaning in. That includes applying for leadership positions and/or negotiating for more equitable compensation.

There is some good news.

Women who lean in do better than women who don’t. However, women who lean in are also facing substantial resistance.

Late last month, Sheryl Sandberg wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled: “Women Are Leaning In -- But They Face Push Back.” In what could be called “Lean In 2.0,” Sandberg focuses primarily on the systemic obstacles and not on what women can do to overcome or navigate around them.

Sandberg’s article came out on the same day as a study conducted jointly by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. Among the findings: we are still more than 100 years away from there being gender equality in C-suite positions. Further, men are 30 percent more likely than women to be promoted into a management position.

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This is bad news for women (and men). It is beyond dispute that businesses do not reach their full potential if there is not gender diversity among those holding leadership positions.

The 'too aggressive' penalty.

One of the reasons for the absence of acceptable progress in terms of gender equality is what Sandberg calls the “too aggressive penalty.” Citing the McKinsey/Lean In study, Sandberg states in the WSJ article, “women who negotiate are 67 percent more likely than women who don’t to receive feedback that their personal style is ‘intimidating,’ ‘too aggressive,’ or ‘bossy,’ and they are more likely to receive that kind of feedback than men who negotiate.”

Don’t negotiate and don’t advance. Negotiate and wear the Scarlett B coded in other terms. This is the classic double standard, and it is indefensible.

So what do we do to shatter the double standard that provides a coat of cement for the glass ceiling? Six suggestions (for starters):

Acknowledge the problem.

We cannot solve the problem unless those who have power to correct it acknowledge that it exists. And, too many still deny the problem. I have never experienced labor pains. But I would be a fool to deny their existence.

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So share data with your leaders, for example, the McKinsey/Lean In Study. Consider sharing other academic studies framed in business terms that identify the scope of the problem. The Harvard Business Review and Catalyst.org are great resources, to name but two. 

Don’t attack or admit bias.

Don’t attack your leaders. That will do nothing more than make them shut down, if not worse. Plus, it may be used later as an admission of organizational bias. Instead, try something like, “we know this problem exists in the business world, and we would be a bit naïve, if not arrogant, to assume we are immune from the problem.”

Focus training on unconscious bias.

As Sandberg and others acknowledge, some of the bias is undeniably unconscious. Focusing on the unconscious in training gives leaders a “safe” way to change. “I was not aware.” Well, now you are. Message to leaders: with conscious awareness, unconscious bias can and must be avoided.

Eradicating gender bias cannot be over-emphasized.

When emphasizing the need for change, talk about the business imperative: bias is bad business. Do not call the training sensitivity training. Most leaders view that as soft fluff. This is business training to maximize profitability. The message would be the same if there were no men in leadership; make that clear!

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Show leaders how to address unconscious bias.

Leaders may not realize that their feelings are due to unconscious bias but they should be consciously aware of their emotional reactions (or they shouldn’t be leaders). When they find themselves feeling someone is too aggressive, pushy, bossy or strident (I could go on), encourage them (in their heads) to move from labels to specifics behaviors and then ask themselves the million-dollar question: do I laud this precise behavior when engaged in by a white man?

Hold leaders accountable.

Training leaders is just a start. We need to hold them accountable. If there is conscious bias or unconscious bias (usually evidenced by a pattern), leaders must pay a price. However, this should be done in a way where you correct the wrong but don’t create an admission of bias. This is easy to say but deceptively complex to implement. But it can be done with reasonable legal risk and substantial business upside if thoughtfully implemented.

Let me end by quoting Sandberg from Lean In: “‘She is very ambitious’ is not a compliment in our culture.” It’s on all of us to change that for our collective benefit.