“Leaning In” – should talented women press their claims at work more strongly?

The statistics for female representation at the top levels of corporate Australia reveal interesting anomalies. While women today are just as well, if not better educated than men (women edge out men when it comes to Bachelor degrees and higher qualifications, with 27 percent of women compared to 24 percent of men holding qualifications at this level) only 12 of Australia’s top 500 listed companies (ASX 500) are headed by women, an increase of one since 2010.

As Billabong CEO, Launa Inman observes “When you see all these smart young women coming out of uni, why are they not there at the top end?”

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics social-trend report found that many women simply lack the self-confidence necessary to become leaders: “It has been suggested that women tend to be uncomfortable with self-promotion. Being more hesitant to promote themselves and their accomplishments may come across as a lack of confidence in their abilities”.

Even high-achieving businesswomen tend to downplay their achievements: a poll of the 104 finalists in the 2012 Telstra Business Women’s Awards in Australia found 92 percent of respondents tended to talk about “we” rather than “me” when discussing their achievements.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In argues that one reason that women have not reached the top of the corporate world is that they have held themselves back, lacked in self-confidence “by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in”.

According to the introduction by QBE Chair Belinda Hutchinson, the book “is about building self-confidence, which Sheryl covers in the chapter ‘Sit at the Table’ and, believe me, many of the most senior women in business and government suffer from a lack of it”.

Sandberg identifies a tendency among professional women: lack of ambition, the desire to be liked rather than respected and a reticence to “sit at the table”. She observes that “differences in self-confidence matter and play out every single day”, observing that, in a meeting, men will tend to sit at the centre or the front of the room and women are more likely to sit at the side of the table or not at the table at all.

Men are certainly adept at creating their own success – a 2011 report by Europe’s Institute of Leadership and Management found that 31 percent of male managers would admit self-doubt to others, compared to half of their female equivalents.

According to Sandberg, men will take opportunities they are not totally qualified for, whereas women will wait until they feel completely qualified (women apply for jobs when they have 100 percent of selection criteria covered; men take a punt with 60 percent).

Men constantly agitate for promotion, women passively await accolades and wait for Prince Charming or Fairy Godmother-like mentors to discover them, according to Sandberg.

“Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is. Assessments of students in a surgery rotation found that when asked to evaluate themselves, the female students gave themselves lower scores than the male students despite faculty evaluations that showed women outperformed the men”.

Sandberg’s viewpoints are not without controversy. Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick says she is “troubled” by Sandberg’s argument that women have to “lean in”.

“It suggests that the problem is with women and if they were a bit more like men everything would be fine. If they put themselves forward more often, communicated differently, negotiated differently,” she says. “Such an approach undermines the logic behind the diversity argument.

“Women will never be as good at being men as men; diversity is about embracing difference.

“It also means that any failures to advance women will be laid at the feet of women themselves.

“It’s the system that needs changing not the women”, says Broderick.

Broderick’s arguments are backed by a 2011 McKinsey report which noted that men are promoted based on potential while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.

It is possible that both viewpoints are correct – aligning both “push and pull” factors at the pre-career and company level is the key to real change.

Recent articles

Low job control

Eliminate Low Job Control and Empower Your Employees: A Breakdown of the First Webinar

Safe Work Australia has pinpointed 14 psychosocial risks that can adversely affect not only productivity and engagement levels but also...
Investigation process

4 steps to run a Successful Workplace Investigation Process: Insights from a Senior Investigator

Article updated on 15 February 2024 [Originally published in 2017] Workplace investigation process, whether conducted internally or externally, must follow...
HR initiatives

New year, New HR Initiatives: Three Strategic Steps to Align Business Objectives and Policies

At the start of a new year, people return to work with a renewed sense of purpose, vision, and goals...

Approved Code of Practice covering sexual and gender-based harassment by Safe Work Australia

Sexual and gender-based harassment Code of Practice Published 20 December 2023 What is it - This approved Code of Practice...