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Chapter 1 The Leadership Ambition Gap
  What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

MY GRANDMOTHER Rosalind Einhorn was born exactly fifty-two years before I was, on August 28, 1917.

Like many poor Jewish families in the boroughs of New York City, hers lived in a small, crowdedapartment close to their relatives. Her parents, aunts, and uncles addressed her male cousins by theirgiven names, but she and her sister were referred to only as “Girlie.”

During the Depression, my grandmother was pulled out of Morris High School to help support thehousehold by sewing fabric flowers onto undergarments that her mother could resell for a tiny profit.

No one in the community would have considered taking a boy out of school. A boy’s education wasthe family’s hope to move up the financial and social ladder. Education for girls, however, was lessimportant both financially, since they were unlikely to contribute to the family’s income, andculturally, since boys were expected to study the Torah while girls were expected to run a “properhome.” Luckily for my grandmother, a local teacher insisted that her parents put her back into school.

She went on not only to finish high school but to graduate from U.C. Berkeley.

After college, “Girlie” worked selling pocketbooks and accessories at David’s Fifth Avenue. Whenshe left her job to marry my grandfather, family legend has it that David’s had to hire four people toreplace her. Years later, when my grandfather’s paint business was struggling, she jumped in and tooksome of the hard steps he was reluctant to take, helping to save the family from financial ruin. Shedisplayed her business acumen again in her forties. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she beatit and then dedicated herself to raising money for the clinic that treated her by selling knockoffwatches out of the trunk of her car. Girlie ended up with a profit margin that Apple would envy. I havenever met anyone with more energy and determination than my grandmother. When Warren Buffetttalks about competing against only half of the population, I think about her and wonder how differenther life might have been if she had been born half a century later.

When my grandmother had children of her own—my mother and her two brothers—sheemphasized education for all of them. My mother attended the University of Pennsylvania, whereclasses were coed. When she graduated in 1965 with a degree in French literature, she surveyed aworkforce that she believed consisted of two career options for women: teaching or nursing. She choseteaching. She began a Ph.D. program, got married, and then dropped out when she became pregnantwith me. It was thought to be a sign of weakness if a husband needed his wife’s help to support theirfamily, so my mother became a stay-at-home parent and an active volunteer. The centuries-olddivision of labor stood.

Even though I grew up in a traditional home, my parents had the same expectations for me, mysister, and my brother. All three of us were encouraged to excel in school, do equal chores, and engagein extracurricular activities. We were all supposed to be athletic too. My brother and sister joinedsports teams, but I was the kid who got picked last in gym. Despite my athletic shortcomings, I wasraised to believe that girls could do anything boys could do and that all career paths were open to me.

When I arrived at college in the fall of 1987, my classmates of both genders seemed equally focusedon academics. I don’t remember thinking about my future career differently from the male students. Ialso don’t remember any conversations about someday balancing work and children. My friends and Iassumed that we would have both. Men and women competed openly and aggressively with oneanother in classes, activities, and job interviews. Just two generations removed from my grandmother,the playing field seemed to be level.

But more than twenty years after my college graduation, the world has not evolved nearly as muchas I believed it would. Almost all of my male classmates work in professional settings. Some of myfemale classmates work full-time or part-time outside the home, and just as many are stay-at-homemothers and volunteers like my mom. This mirrors the national trend. In comparison to their malecounterparts, highly trained women are scaling back and dropping out of the workforce in highnumbers.

In turn, these diverging percentages teach institutions and mentors to invest more in men,who are statistically more likely to stay.

Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and the first woman to serve as president ofan Ivy League university, once remarked to an audience of women my age, “My generation fought sohard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was notthe choice we thought so many of you would make.”

So what happened? My generation was raised in an era of increasing equality, a trend we thoughtwould continue. In retrospect, we were na.ve and idealistic. Integrating professional and personalaspirations proved far more challenging than we had imagined. During the same years that our careersdemanded maximum time investment, our biology demanded that we have children. Our partners didnot share the housework and child rearing, so we found ourselves with two full-time jobs. Theworkplace did not evolve to give us the flexibility we needed to fulfill our responsibilities at home.

We anticipated none of this. We were caught by surprise.

If my generation was too na.ve, the generations that have followed may be too practical. We knewtoo little, and now girls know too much. Girls growing up today are not the first generation to haveequal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translateinto professional achievement. Many of these girls watched their mothers try to “do it all” and thendecide that something had to give. That something was usually their careers.

There’s no doubt that women have the skills to lead in the workplace. Girls are increasinglyoutperforming boys in the classroom, earning about 57 percent of the undergraduate and 60 percent ofthe master’s degrees in the United States.

This gender gap in academic achievement has even causedsome to worry about the “end of men.”

But while compliant, raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace.

5Career progressionoften depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself—traits that girls are discouraged fromexhibiting. This may explain why girls’ academic gains have not yet translated into significantlyhigher numbers of women in top jobs. The pipeline that supplies the educated workforce is chock-fullof women at the entry level, but by the time that same pipeline is filling leadership positions, it isoverwhelmingly stocked with men.

There are so many reasons for this winnowing out, but one important contributor is a leadershipambition gap. Of course, many individual women are as professionally ambitious as any individualman. Yet drilling down, the data clearly indicate that in field after field, more men than women aspireto the most senior jobs. A 2012 McKinsey survey of more than four thousand employees of leadingcompanies found that 36 percent of the men wanted to reach the C-suite, compared to only 18 percentof the women.

When jobs are described as powerful, challenging, and involving high levels ofresponsibility, they appeal to more men than women.

And while the ambition gap is most pronouncedat the highest levels, the underlying dynamic is evident at every step of the career ladder. A survey ofcollege students found that more men than women chose “reaching a managerial level” as a careerpriority in the first three years after graduating.

Even among highly educated professional men andwomen, more men than women describe themselves as “ambitious.”

There is some hope that a shift is starting to occur in the next generation. A 2012 Pew study foundfor the first time that among young people ages eighteen to thirty-four, more young women (66percent) than young men (59 percent) rated “success in a high-paying career or profession” asimportant to their lives.

A recent survey of Millennialsfound that women were just as likely todescribe themselves as ambitious as men. Although this is an improvement, even among thisdemographic, the leadership ambition gap remains. Millennial women are less likely than Millennialmen to agree that the statement “I aspire to a leadership role in whatever field I ultimately work”

describes them very well. Millennial women were also less likely than their male peers to characterizethemselves as “leaders,” “visionaries,” “self-confident,” and “willing to take risks.”

Since more men aim for leadership roles, it is not surprising that they obtain them, especially givenall the other obstacles that women have to overcome. This pattern starts long before they enter theworkforce. Author Samantha Ettus and her husband read their daughter’s kindergarten yearbook,where each child answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They notedthat several of the boys wanted to be president. None of the girls did.

(Current data suggest that whenthese girls become women, they will continue to feel the same way.)In middle school, more boysthan girls aspire to leadership roles in future careers.

At the top fifty colleges, less than a third ofstudent government presidents are women.

Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional—or worse, sometimes even a negative—for women. “She is very ambitious” is not a compliment in our culture. Aggressive and hard-chargingwomen violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded forbeing ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay asocial penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.

And for all the progress, there is still societal pressure for women to keep an eye on marriage from ayoung age. When I went to college, as much as my parents emphasized academic achievement, theyemphasized marriage even more. They told me that the most eligible women marry young to get a“good man” before they are all taken. I followed their advice and throughout college, I vetted everydate as a potential husband (which, trust me, is a sure way to ruin a date at age nineteen).

When I was graduating, my thesis advisor, Larry Summers, suggested that I apply for internationalfellowships. I rejected the idea on the grounds that a foreign country was not a likely place to turn adate into a husband. Instead, I moved to Washington, D.C., which was full of eligible men. It worked.

My first year out of college, I met a man who was not just eligible, but also wonderful, so I marriedhim. I was twenty-four and convinced that marriage was the first—and necessary—step to a happyand productive life.

It didn’t work out that way. I was just not mature enough to have made this lifelong decision, andthe relationship quickly unraveled. By the age of twenty-five, I had managed to get married … andalso divorced. At the time, this felt like a massive personal and public failure. For many years, I feltthat no matter what I accomplished professionally, it paled in comparison to the scarlet letter Dstitched on my chest. (Almost ten years later, I learned that the “good ones” were not all taken, and Iwisely and very happily married Dave Goldberg.)Like me, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Womenand Foreign Policy Program, was encouraged to prioritize marriage over career. As she described inThe Atlantic, “When I was 27, I received a posh fellowship to travel to Germany to learn German andwork at the Wall Street Journal.… It was an incredible opportunity for a 20-something by anyobjective standard, and I knew it would help prepare me for graduate school and beyond. Mygirlfriends, however, expressed shock and horror that I would leave my boyfriend at the time to liveabroad for a year. My relatives asked whether I was worried that I’d never get married. And when Iattended a barbecue with my then-beau, his boss took me aside to remind me that ‘there aren’t manyguys like that out there.’ ” The result of these negative reactions, in Gayle’s view, is that many women“still see ambition as a dirty word.”

Many have argued with me that ambition is not the problem. Women are not less ambitious thanmen, they insist, but more enlightened with different and more meaningful goals. I do not dismiss ordispute this argument. There is far more to life than climbing a career ladder, including raisingchildren, seeking personal fulfillment, contributing to society, and improving the lives of others. Andthere are many people who are deeply committed to their jobs but do not—and should not have to—aspire to run their organizations. Leadership roles are not the only way to have profound impact.

I also acknowledge that there are biological differences between men and women. I have breast-fedtwo children and noted, at times with great disappointment, that this was simply not something myhusband was equipped to do. Are there characteristics inherent in sex differences that make womenmore nurturing and men more assertive? Quite possibly. Still, in today’s world, where we no longerhave to hunt in the wild for our food, our desire for leadership is largely a culturally created andreinforced trait. How individuals view what they can and should accomplish is in large part formed byour societal expectations.

From the moment we are born, boys and girls are treated differently.

Parents tend to talk to girlbabies more than boy babies.

Mothers overestimate the crawling ability of their sons andunderestimate the crawling ability of their daughters.

Reflecting the belief that girls need to be helpedmore than boys, mothers often spend more time comforting and hugging infant girls and more timewatching infant boys play by themselves.

Other cultural messages are more blatant. Gymboree once sold onesies proclaiming “Smart likeDaddy” for boys and “Pretty like Mommy” for girls.

The same year, J. C. Penney marketed a T-shirtto teenage girls that bragged, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”

These things did not happen in 1951. They happened in 2011.

Even worse, the messages sent to girls can move beyond encouraging superficial traits and veer intoexplicitly discouraging leadership. When a girl tries to lead, she is often labeled bossy. Boys areseldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend. As someonewho was called this for much of my childhood, I know that it is not a compliment.

The stories of my childhood bossiness are told (and retold) with great amusement. Apparently,when I was in elementary school, I taught my younger siblings, David and Michelle, to follow mearound, listen to my monologues, and scream the word “Right!” when I concluded. I was the eldest ofthe neighborhood children and allegedly spent my time organizing shows that I could direct and clubsthat I could run. People laugh at these accounts, but to this day I always feel slightly ashamed of mybehavior (which is remarkable given that I have now written an entire book about why girls should notbe made to feel this way, or maybe this partially explains my motivation).

Even when we were in our thirties, pointing out this behavior was still the best way for my siblingsto tease me. When Dave and I got married, David and Michelle gave a beautiful, hilarious toast, whichkicked off with this: “Hi! Some of you think we are Sheryl’s younger siblings, but really we wereSheryl’s first employees—employee number one and employee number two. Initially, as a one-year-old and a three-year-old, we were worthless and weak. Disorganized, lazy. We would just as soon spitup on ourselves as read the morning paper. But Sheryl could see that we had potential. For more thanten years, Sheryl took us under her wing and whipped us into shape.” Everyone laughed. My siblingscontinued, “To the best of our knowledge Sheryl never actually played as a child, but really justorganized other children’s play. Sheryl supervised adults as well. When our parents went away onvacation, our grandparents used to babysit. Before our parents left, Sheryl protested, ‘Now I have totake care of David and Michelle and Grandma and Grandpa too. It’s not fair!’ ” Everyone laughedeven louder.

I laughed too, but there is still some part of me that feels it was unseemly for a little girl to bethought of as so … domineering. Cringe.

From a very early age, boys are encouraged to take charge and offer their opinions. Teachersinteract more with boys, call on them more frequently, and ask them more questions. Boys are alsomore likely to call out answers, and when they do, teachers usually listen to them. When girls call out,teachers often scold them for breaking the rules and remind them to raise their hands if they want tospeak.

I was recently reminded that these patterns persist even when we are all grown up. Not long ago, ata small dinner with other business executives, the guest of honor spoke the entire time without takinga breath. This meant that the only way to ask a question or make an observation was to interrupt.

Three or four men jumped in, and the guest politely answered their questions before resuming hislecture. At one point, I tried to add something to the conversation and he barked, “Let me finish! Youpeople are not good at listening!” Eventually, a few more men interjected and he allowed it. Then theonly other female executive at the dinner decided to speak up—and he did it again! He chastised herfor interrupting. After the meal, one of the male CEOs pulled me aside to say that he had noticed thatonly the women had been silenced. He told me he empathized, because as a Hispanic, he has beentreated like this many times.

The danger goes beyond authority figures silencing female voices. Young women internalizesocietal cues about what defines “appropriate” behavior and, in turn, silence themselves. They arerewarded for being “pretty like Mommy” and encouraged to be nurturing like Mommy too. The albumFree to Be … You and Me was released in 1972 and became a staple of my childhood. My favoritesong, “William’s Doll,” is about a five-year-old boy who begs his reluctant father to buy him atraditional girl’s toy. Almost forty years later, the toy industry remains riddled with stereotypes. Rightbefore Christmas 2011, a video featuring a four-year-old girl named Riley went viral. Riley paces in atoy store, upset because companies are trying to “trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead ofstuff that boys want to buy, right?” Right. As Riley reasons, “Some girls like superheroes, some girlslike princesses. Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So why do all the girls have tobuy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?”

26It takes a near act of rebellion foreven a four-year-old to break away from society’s expectations. William still has no doll, while Rileyis drowning in a sea of pink. I now play Free to Be … You and Me for my children and hope that ifthey ever play it for their children, its message will seem quaint.

The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and becomeself-fulfilling prophesies. Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don’t expect toachieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don’t. The same is true with pay. Mengenerally earn more than women, so people expect women to earn less. And they do.

Compounding the problem is a social-psychological phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” Socialscientists have observed that when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype, theyare more likely to perform according to that stereotype. For example, stereotypically, boys are better atmath and science than girls. When girls are reminded of their gender before a math or science test,even by something as simple as checking off an M or F box at the top of the test, they perform worse.

Stereotype threat discourages girls and women from entering technical fields and is one of the keyreasons that so few study computer science.

As a Facebook summer intern once told me, “In myschool’s computer science department, there are more Daves than girls.”

The stereotype of a working woman is rarely attractive. Popular culture has long portrayedsuccessful working women as so consumed by their careers that they have no personal life (thinkSigourney Weaver in Working Girl and Sandra Bullock in The Proposal). If a female character dividesher time between work and family, she is almost always harried and guilt ridden (think Sarah JessicaParker in I Don’t Know How She Does It). And these characterizations have moved beyond fiction. Astudy found that of Millennial men and women who work in an organization with a woman in a seniorrole, only about 20 percent want to emulate her career.

This unappealing stereotype is particularly unfortunate since most women have no choice but toremain in the workforce. About 41 percent of mothers are primary breadwinners and earn the majorityof their family’s earnings. Another 23 percent of mothers are co-breadwinners, contributing at least aquarter of the family’s earnings.

The number of women supporting families on their own isincreasing quickly; between 1973 and 2006, the proportion of families headed by a single mother grewfrom one in ten to one in five.

These numbers are dramatically higher in Hispanic and African-American families. Twenty-seven percent of Latino children and 52 percent of African-Americanchildren are being raised by a single mother.

Our country lags considerably behind others in efforts to help parents take care of their children andstay in the workforce. Of all the industrialized nations in the world, the United States is the only onewithout a paid maternity leave policy.

As Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Workconsortium, observed, most “women are not thinking about ‘having it all,’ they’re worried aboutlosing it all—their jobs, their children’s health, their families’ financial stability—because of theregular conflicts that arise between being a good employee and a responsible parent.”

For many men, the fundamental assumption is that they can have both a successful professional lifeand a fulfilling personal life. For many women, the assumption is that trying to do both is difficult atbest and impossible at worst. Women are surrounded by headlines and stories warning them that theycannot be committed to both their families and careers. They are told over and over again that theyhave to choose, because if they try to do too much, they’ll be harried and unhappy. Framing the issueas “work-life balance”—as if the two were diametrically opposed—practically ensures work will loseout. Who would ever choose work over life?

The good news is that not only can women have both families and careers, they can thrive whiledoing so. In 2009, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober published Getting to 50/50, a comprehensivereview of governmental, social science, and original research that led them to conclude that children,parents, and marriages can all flourish when both parents have full careers. The data plainly reveal thatsharing financial and child-care responsibilities leads to less guilty moms, more involved dads, andthriving children.

Professor Rosalind Chait Barnett of Brandeis University did a comprehensivereview of studies on work-life balance and found that women who participate in multiple rolesactually have lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of mental well-being.

Employed women reaprewards including greater financial security, more stable marriages, better health, and, in general,increased life satisfaction.

It may not be as dramatic or funny to make a movie about a woman who loves both her job and herfamily, but that would be a better reflection of reality. We need more portrayals of women ascompetent professionals and happy mothers—or even happy professionals and competent mothers.

The current negative images may make us laugh, but they also make women unnecessarily fearful bypresenting life’s challenges as insurmountable. Our culture remains baffled: I don’t know how shedoes it.

Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear ofmaking the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of beingjudged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.

Without fear, women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment—and freely chooseone, or the other, or both. At Facebook, we work hard to create a culture where people are encouragedto take risks. We have posters all around the office that reinforce this attitude. In bright red letters, onedeclares, “Fortune favors the bold.” Another insists, “Proceed and be bold.” My favorite reads, “Whatwould you do if you weren’t afraid?”

In 2011, Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, an all-women’s liberal arts school in NewYork City, invited me to deliver its commencement address. This speech was the first time I openlydiscussed the leadership ambition gap. Standing on the podium, I felt nervous. I told the members ofthe graduating class that they should be ambitious not just in pursuing their dreams but in aspiring tobecome leaders in their fields. I knew this message could be misinterpreted as my judging women fornot making the same choices that I have. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I believe that choicemeans choice for all of us. But I also believe that we need to do more to encourage women to reach forleadership roles. If we can’t tell women to aim high at a college graduation, when can we?

As I addressed the enthusiastic women, I found myself fighting back tears. I made it through thespeech and concluded with this:

You are the promise for a more equal world. So my hope for everyone here is that after you walkacross this stage, after you get your diploma, after you go out tonight and celebrate hard—youthen will lean way in to your career. You will find something you love doing and you will do itwith gusto. Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top.

As you walk off this stage today, you start your adult life. Start out by aiming high. Try—andtry hard.

Like everyone here, I have great hopes for the members of this graduating class. I hope youfind true meaning, contentment, and passion in your life. I hope you navigate the difficult timesand come out with greater strength and resolve. I hope you find whatever balance you seek withyour eyes wide open. And I hope that you—yes, you—have the ambition to lean in to yourcareer and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it. Women all around the worldare counting on you.

So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.

As the graduates were called to the stage to collect their diplomas, I shook every hand. Manystopped to give me a hug. One young woman even told me I was “the baddest bitch” (which, havingchecked with someone later, actually did turn out to be a compliment).

I know my speech was meant to motivate them, but they actually motivated me. In the months thatfollowed, I started thinking that I should speak up more often and more publicly about these issues. Ishould urge more women to believe in themselves and aspire to lead. I should urge more men tobecome part of the solution by supporting women in the workforce and at home. And I should not justspeak in front of friendly crowds at Barnard. I should seek out larger, possibly less sympatheticaudiences. I should take my own advice and be ambitious.

Writing this book is not just me encouraging others to lean in. This is me leaning in. Writing thisbook is what I would do if I weren’t afraid.


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