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Striking a chord with women in leadership roles

Sheryl Sandberg’s views have struck a chord with some female leaders in the Rochester area.
 
Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., has been vocal about barriers that prevent women from rising to leadership roles in her book "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead." Her suggestions have been controversial; women and men have differing opinions on the issues she raises and do not agree entirely with her point of view.
 
"Lean In" was born of Sandberg’s meteoric rise, the self-doubts she sometimes experienced and overcame along the way, and her research on women in the workplace. She believes women may limit their own access to leadership positions by self-doubt and a lack of willingness to take risks.
 
Such limits, combined with institutional gender biases and other factors, have prevented women from gaining the jobs and careers they deserve. As a result, women are underrepresented in the upper echelons of business: The author noted that only 14 percent of the executive officers of U.S. companies are women.
 
To deal with such problems, Sandberg encourages working women to take a more confident stance as they confront the challenge of juggling the demands of leadership positions with their personal lives.
  "(The book’s) primary message is to take some risks," says Judith Baumhauer M.D., the 2012 Athena Award recipient and associate chair of academic affairs in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s department of orthopedic surgery.
 
By doing so, women can "lean in" to leadership positions, as Sandberg puts it, demonstrating their skills, gaining more experience and giving their careers room to grow.
 
Women should also think of their careers not as rungs on a ladder but as places on a "jungle gym," according to Sandberg. By turning their gaze sideways instead of up, they can take more indirect career paths that might lead to valuable experience and advancement.
 
Should a working woman select a mate, it is important for her to pick what the author calls "a real partner," who supports her career goals and is willing to take on an equal share of household and family duties.
 
Kathleen Whelehan, president and CEO of Upstate National Bank, says working mothers sometimes limit their career goals out of a fear that their families or friends might criticize them for putting their jobs before their children.
 
"I think there is a lot of uneasiness about jumping in," adds Whelehan, who received the Athena Award in 1996.
 
Whelehan says she experienced such criticism as she pursued her career while taking care of her mother, husband and seven children.
 
Women may also stunt their career growth in the ways Sandberg describes, by how they view the challenges of meshing career and home life, says Karen Benjamin, co-founder and chief operating officer of Worldleaders Inc., who agrees with most of Sandberg’s views. Benjamin says women interviewing for executive positions speak more often of their need to balance work and family roles than men do.
 
"It can cause people to wonder if they would have the same ability to commit to what’s required at some of these executive-level roles," she says.
 
Self-limiting may occur in other ways, as well. Benjamin, a board member of Digital Rochester, has helped pick the recipients of the non-profit’s annual Technology Woman of the Year award. Several nominees have turned down the honor in recent years, some because they felt they did not deserve it.
 
"When do you see men turning down awards?" she asks.
 
Such views may compound the effects of institutional gender biases. Whelehan was bypassed for promotion more than once because she was pregnant and thought to be unavailable for the position as a result.
 
"There was the presumption that ‘Well, of course, you won’t be interested,’" she explains.
 
Put together, such institutional biases and personal limits contribute to the limited number of women in leadership positions. No more than 15 percent of the companies that Worldleaders counts as clients have women in top positions, Benjamin says.
 
Sandberg’s advice to women who are facing such personal or institutional hurdles to career growth also drew a measure of support. Baumhauer sometimes advises female medical students to risk applying for top orthopedic residencies despite their fear of being rejected by those programs.
 
JoAnne Ryan, president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Western New York, praises the theme of personal empowerment that runs through "Lean In."
 
"We are responsible for our destiny, and opportunities that come into our lives that we don’t act on typically result in lack of movement forward," she says.
 
Ryan, who began working in health care, long before "Lean In" was written, started making use of such opportunities as a young nurse. Though initially nervous about taking on leadership roles at work, she took on committee assignments and other tasks that demonstrated her worth to those above her-and herself. Ryan boosted her confidence and her value as an executive by taking positions that constituted more lateral than upward moves on the "jungle gym."
 
"The confidence comes from moving sideways and doing the job well," she asserts. "The journey here was not a straight shot."
 
Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp, agrees that a "real partner" can help a woman successfully balance her career and home life.
 
"I do not believe my own family life and career would have been so successful and personally satisfying without a tremendously supportive spouse," she says.
 
At the same time, she and other executives object to some of Sandberg’s views. Though Baumhauer has encouraged some of her students and residents to read "Lean In," she acknowledges that the book is not for all women.
 
"It’s really for women that are trying to go ahead and move ahead in business," she says. "This book may be somewhat not speaking positively about the roles of mom and wife."
 
Zimmer-Meyer says a fear of risks might not affect women and their career choices as much as a fear of success.
 
"If you are successful, it will ultimately require you to make tougher choices between your work and your family," she says.
 
She also warns that Sandberg’s encouragement of working women to take on leadership roles is not always appropriate.
 
"We can’t all be leaders, and so the world sorts that out for most of us," Zimmer-Meyer says.
 
Though Sandberg writes of her own professional crises of confidence in "Lean In," most of the executives who discussed the book said they have never suffered from such crises themselves.
 
"I personally never felt held back or limited as a woman," Benjamin says. "I always thought I had the right to be there."
 
Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

1/10/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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