Lack of Women in Leadership Roles Needs to Be Addressed

Article excerpt

Reactions to Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," came fast and frequent upon publication in early March, and have ranged from high praise to harsh criticism.

The book ($24.95, Alfred A. Knopf), penned by Facebook's current chief operating officer who is a former Google executive, is the author's take on how women can overcome social stereotypes, personal insecurities and other challenges to reach their career goals.

Hailed by some as a long overdue how-to and panned by others as a too narrow point of view offered by a woman of wealth, the book has sparked an international conversation about the need for both sexes to address the lack of female leaders.

Sandberg discusses the importance of women making the best choices for themselves when it comes to working and having a family. She encourages women to "lean in" to their careers rather than shying away from opportunities when preparing to raise a family.

Sandberg explains she supports any person's choice to dedicate his or her life to raising children, but argues, "the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives -- not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in."

Some of the issues raised in the book resonate with several Pittsburgh-area executives.

"She's saying you want to get into a position of power and influence so when you need flexibility, you're in a better position to negotiate for it," says M.J. Tocci, co-founder and director of the Heinz Negotiation Academy for Women at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It's about not forgoing promotions because you're worried it will create a lifestyle incompatible with parenthood."

Sandberg cites case studies to delve into the stereotypes many women face in the workplace, specifically the idea that powerful men are often viewed positively while women in the same roles are frequently perceived as unlikeable.

"I believe this bias is at the very core of why women are held back," Sandberg writes. "It is also at the very core of why women hold themselves back. For men, professional success comes with positive reinforcement at every step of the way. For women, even when they're recognized for their achievements, they're often regarded unfavorably."

Michele Fabrizi, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based advertising agency MARC USA, says, "you can't be a woman in the workplace today and not" be aware of that stereotype. Part of the solution, she says, is for women to "believe in what you say, and say it."

"If you don't speak up, nobody will," she says. "You really have to have career confidence."

Thomas VanKirk, chief legal officer and corporate secretary for Highmark and former Women and Girls Foundation board member, says the key to overcoming women-related stereotypes is education.

"We must recognize that diversity -- particularly women diversity -- isn't just the right thing to do, it's the good thing to do for business," he says.

VanKirk, who served on the foundation board for six years before leaving his position last year, first became involved with the organization through a project to get more women in board positions for public companies.

"Women were having a more difficult time rising to the top," he says. "To get to a leadership position, you do have to be strong and aggressive, and 'strong and aggressive' have always been viewed as positive male traits. When women show the same aggression, it transcends in people's minds as being pushy."

While VanKirk says progress has been made, it's "still not as much as it should be." He points to organizations like the Women and Girls Foundation and the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University as resources for education.

"We need to turn to CEOs and have them encourage women in their organizations, and then we need for all of us to really take the time to be educated about the fact that women do present strong diversity," he says. …