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How workplaces punish women for being ambitious

Here’s the problem with “Leaning In”: the qualities you need to get ahead are the same ones that get you branded as “shrill”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the Makers Conference in February 2016. (Brian To/Variety/REX/Shutterstock/AP)

Say I’m trying to get you to read this column. I could tell you to read it because I’m an experienced writer with something relevant to say about a topic I’ve researched extensively—but then I’d sound pushy and arrogant. Or I could gently suggest you might want to read it, if it’s not too much trouble—but then I’d come across as too timid, lacking confidence in my own abilities.

Welcome to the maddening reality of being a woman trying to get ahead in business. The damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dichotomy is, of course, precisely the struggle Sheryl Sandberg articulated in her landmark 2013 book, Lean In—a text intended to incite, if not an outright gender-parity revolution, at least some meaningful change. But three years after the book’s publication, things haven’t improved much. In addition, the bestseller’s main prescription—for women to double down and aggressively pursue career advancement—isn’t producing the intended effect.

Examples of this abound. Researchers Christine Exley of Harvard Business School, Muriel Niederle of Stanford University and Lise Vesterlund of the University of Pittsburgh recently did a set of experiments related to female aggression in on-the-job negotiations in which, as they write, “we saw that women hurt themselves financially when they followed a blanket recommendation to always ask for more.” When tech entrepreneur Kieran Snyder analyzed performance reviews done by a diverse group of managers at a variety of companies a few years ago, she found that constructive feedback given to women included strong elements of “negative personality criticism” that were all but absent from the suggestions for men.

No shock, then, that according to 2015 research done by the non-profit LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, women remain under-represented “at every level” of corporations. The study found only marginal improvements toward parity in senior and executive leadership positions since 2012; at the current pace of change, it will take 100 years to reach gender equality in the C-suite. And it’s not because women aren’t willing (and able) to advance: “There is compelling evidence that women are disadvantaged by company practices and culture,” the study says.

And that’s the issue. Nothing is going to change in any meaningful way until organizations are less inclined to penalize women who demonstrate ambition. Framing the issue as one of self-advocacy—that it’s on women alone to lean in and pull themselves up the corporate ladder—absolves employers of their responsibility to create environments in which women are not punished for doing so.

“But our company isn’t part of the problem!” you might say. “It’s a meritocracy, a great place for women to work!” But is it really? Some of your policies may be preventing female staffers from advancing, without you even knowing it.

Take Google, one of the most innovative companies around. It has a much-lauded performance-management program in which candidates must not only detail their accomplishments that warrant a step up the org chart, but also, crucially, solicit endorsements from their peers. In the words of one Quora commenter, getting ahead at Google means spending “considerable amounts of time and energy marketing yourself.”

Such programs are meant to eliminate nepotism and patronage, and on that front they can be effective. But, surprise! Women tend not to feel super comfortable with self-promotion—not due to timidity or inferiority, but because most of us know doing so will brand us as being “shrill” or “difficult.” (Surprise again! Men hold 78% of Google’s leadership positions.)

Any company with a serious desire to correct gender imbalances in its ranks must begin by taking a close look at its own operational structures and professional development schemes to make sure unconscious biases aren’t blocking bright, capable women from stepping up. Because a change this big can’t come from just the grassroots. Yes, we women have to keep leaning in. But our employers need to meet us halfway.