In explaining the origins of her timely and influential book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recalls the prevailing assumption throughout many organisations in recent years that the battle for gender equality had been won and women could now expect to be judged and promoted just the same as men.
“People just thought, ‘Oh yeah, women are doing great!’ And I’m looking around, and every year there are fewer women in the room.”
By her analysis of the historical data, women made great progress for several decades but that progress stalled ten years ago. Women currently hold fewer than 6% of the top CEO jobs in any country. Women represent a minority in every government, NGO and industry. In the US, 75% of workers in the non-profit sector are women, but only 21% of the big non-profits are run by women. Yes, there are practical challenges for women with children, but that’s not enough to explain the imbalance. Her conclusion: we still choose leaders based on their gender and we still put barriers in the way of professional women.
I too was guilty of the lazy assumption she identified, perhaps because I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, and because in consulting and publishing women do tend to thrive. But it’s also the case that the leadership teams and executive committees I work with across Europe and America tend to be around 90% male. Aside from in HR and Comms roles, women are dreadfully represented at the tops of most organisations.
So Sandberg’s realisation that our perception of reality had become distorted and needed to be reshaped resonates with me. We had let ourselves be misled by an old (and possibly outdated) truth — that opportunities for women are improving — into missing a more important competing truth — that we still have a long way to go.