Yang: Underappreciating Our Potential
By Lorelei Yang, Staff Columnist
Published on Tuesday, January 29, 2013
At a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg made a series of fiery comments on the gender stereotypes that she says prohibit women from advancing in the workplace. Sandberg singled out T-shirts sold in the United States, with the boys’ version bearing the words “Smart Like Daddy” and the girls’ version the words “Pretty Like Mommy” and said, “I would love to say that [those T-shirts were from] 1951, but [they were from] last year. As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked, and that starts with those t-shirts.”
Sandberg also criticized managers whose performance reviews of women reflect stereotypes, such as “she’s great at her job but she’s just not as well liked by her peers,” or “she’s just a bit aggressive,” and suggested that the same observations would not be made of successful men.
Unfortunately, Sandberg’s observations are all too true. For girls, much of the social conditioning that we go through via childrearing practices, literature and, indeed, others’ opinions of ourselves emphasizes likeability and sociability, rather than the assertiveness and outspokenness that are valued in boys as the ideals to which they should hew.
This leads to women being less assertive than men in the workplace, according to Sandberg. Specifically, she said that women “internalize the negative messages [they] get throughout [their] lives...[that] say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men,” and lower their expectations of what they can achieve, compromising their career goals “to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”
All of this is unfortunately true and, in the case of women who buck these standards, many people make their disapproval all too evident. Marissa Mayer, who was announced as Yahoo’s new chief executive officer last July, can attest to this fact. Mayer, who was six months pregnant when her new job at Yahoo was announced, quickly became the center of an intense national discussion about the responsibility — or lack thereof — of her decision to take a high-pressure, high profile job at a time of personal transition. In an interview, Mayer explained that she only planned to take a few weeks of maternity leave and that she would be available throughout her leave — thus making it clear that, in her mind, her pregnancy would not and should not prevent her from being an effective leader.
In Sandberg’s remarks at Davos, she indicated that the solution to the problem of women constantly underselling and underappreciating their potential is for them to simply be more assertive. However, as Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times, that may not be enough. As Kristof points out, there is a need for structural change — such as better childcare in offices and longer maternity and paternity leaves — to accommodate women and families in corporate environments as well.
Even with that said, however, both Sandberg and Kristof wind up missing what may be perhaps be the biggest point — aside from empowering women and changing institutional structures to accommodate them, the biggest obstacle to female ascent lies in how men view successful women. As long as men view traditional femininity, with its associated subservience, unassertiveness and assumption of secondary roles as an ideal, it will remain difficult to convince women that they can “have it all” as successful and desirable women and to fully embrace trailblazers like Sandberg and Mayer.
While the type of ideological change that this would require is difficult to effect, it is by no means impossible. The incremental success of efforts to move into post-racialism in the workplace proves that opinions and practices can be changed, however slowly that change may occur.
To work toward this change, we as a society — and particularly successful, empowered people like Dartmouth men and women — must make conscious efforts to encourage, rather than discourage, the types of women who will one day be the Sandbergs and Meyers of our generation: hardworking, outspoken and unafraid to speak their minds. In short, it is high time that we start encouraging women to think more like men in the office and to applaud, rather than condemn, them for undertaking actions and embracing mentalities that are perfectly acceptable from men.