Leaning: Forward or Backward


“We will not get to equality in the workplace until we get to equality in the home. Full Stop. Will not happen anywhere in the world”- Sheryl Sandberg said at the end of her discussion with PwC Chairman, Bob Mortiz on Tuesday.

As soon as she said that, Bob Mortiz followed with “I have a great need to make sure we are not generalizing too much.”

In one aspect, Mortiz’s statement is forward-thinking. In another aspect, I see it as something that is moving us backwards in this revolution that Sheryl has help reignite with her book Lean In.

Leaning in, you can go forward or backwards. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll see why.



How can what Mortiz said help move us forward? It helps us realize that achieving equality in the workplace goes beyond just achieving equality in the home, to other places like the classroom.

Let’s look a little closer at what Sheryl said. Here’s what she said rephrased: “If we do not get to equality in the home, then we will not get equality in the workplace.”

Not only does Mortiz reaffirm Sheryl’s original statement that I rephrased above, he also simultaenously pushes back on the idea that “if we get equality in the home, then we will get equality in the workplace.”

After hearing the original statement, I initially assumed that equality in the workplace can be achieved through equality in the workplace alone. This assumption is misleading once you look harder at the issues at hand.

Some of the issues that continue to hold women back in the workplace (according to Sheryl) include:

1. Confidence

One of Sheryl’s biggest concerns is that women have notably less self-confidence in their ability. Studies have shown that men, on average, tend to overestimate while women underestimate their abilities. Lower self-confidence negatively affects a woman’s willingness to take risks in her career and stagnates potential growth in the workplace.

2. Leadership- Ambition Gap.

When asked the question “Do you want to lead?,” more boys answer yes than girls at every age level after junior high. Unless we close this gap in the desire to lead, we can not close the gap in leadership in our companies.

Kelly Azevedo, founder of She’s Got Systems, “The Unspoken Rules that Silence Women in Leadership,” provides insight on why equality in the classroom is also necessary to understanding why women lack confidence and do not want to lead. One reason women have lower confidence is due societal backlash that begins in the classroom. Azevedo notes that the social stigmatization for having strong opinions is even stronger since young girls have not earned any type of career success to buffer the backlash. Within the classroom, girls condition themselves to stay silent in fear of potential backlash.

The leadership-ambition gap also exists in the realm of the classroom specifically in group projects. Azevedo discusses how girls tend to have to carry the grade of their classmate in group projects, and how only girls ever ask to do the project alone. In spite of girls’ attempts to get others to do their own work, girls usually end up carrying their burden anyways.What may drive girls away from wanting to be leaders is that the prospect of having to overwork or the idea of failing as a leader.

The bottom line: Equality in the classroom should not be overlooked. Going forward for future generations, it needs to be a higher priority in addition to equality in the home. Like Sheryl has said with institutional reform, it is not enough alone to have parents teaching kids. It must also start from the bottom up with young girls and boys learning and experiencing equality in the classroom to carry with them in the workplace and society.



So, how was comment backwards? If you watch the video (53:41), you’ll see that Mortiz was joking about Sheryl’s comments on needing to have equal expectations for men to do as much for the family as women do.The audience and Sheryl both laughed at this remark.

While I understand that the comment was in good jest, the fact is what Sheryl was a strong opinion. Unfortunately, laughing at something somebody says with conviction undermines how seriously people will take it. And by laughing at the comment, it reinforces the idea it’s okay to laugh at the idea of men having to do equally as much as what women do for their households.

When Sheryl asked what PwC was doing to lean in, PwC chairman, Bob Moritz, explained that by calling out and bringing attetion to the gender bias, employees have now been given permission to openly talk and push back against it. Yet, even as we opnely talk about it, we continue simulatenously reinforce it.

Azevedo points out that it is conflicting messages like this or contradictory pieces of advice such as “speak up but don’t be pushy” or “lead with confidence but don’t contradict your boss” that make being a woman leader so challenging.

As Azevedo said, being a woman leader in business is like learning how to drive. Just like driving, there’s not one right way– we have to make our own path. We’re bound to make a few turns and get lost, but sometimes that’s the only way we can experience it.


Kristie Moy

University of Virginia


Azevedo’s article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/yec/2013/07/16/the-unspoken-rules-that-silence-women-in-leadership/



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