Can we just talk for a moment about the glut of books and articles on the market that profess to have unearthed the reason behind the appalling statistics on women in upper management? Two such recent(ish) books are The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, and Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.
In the case of these two books, it’s not that their advice is without merit. There are some good ideas in both, such as Sandberg’s suggestion that women sit “at the table” during meetings rather than on the periphery. That is sound advice for anyone who wants to get ahead.
What disturbs me is the underlying message of these books: women aren’t making it to top leadership positions, and it’s their fault!
Marooned in Middle Management
Here’s what I mean. When Sandberg tells women that they need to be less attached to their families and more committed to work, she’s in essence saying it’s their choice to be marooned in middle management.
When Kay and Shipley tell women they need to be more confident, they’re saying that women’s lack of confidence is their deficit. In both cases the message is that women are where they are out of some shortfall of their own.
This is wrong on so many levels. On one level, you’re not going to get women to be more confident by wagging a finger at them for their lack of confidence no matter how slickly you do it.
On another level, this advice is, on it’s face, contradictory: be more outspoken but don’t be a bitch; be more confident, but not bossy; lead like a man, but not LIKE a man.
Finally, imagine something that was designed so that only 49% of your customers could use it. Most people would say that that was a lamentable product. Yet the system we call leadership does just that when it systematically excludes women.
This Exclusionary System is the Problem
Sandberg’s and Kay/Shipman’s advice comes from inside this exclusionary system and it misses the most important point, that the system itself is the problem.
The foundational principle of this system is that male structured organizations are the only natural manifestation of human institutions, that males are the benchmark of behavior for human interactions, and that the way men lead is the only way.
Women, in essence, are a foreign substance that needs to alter itself in order to fit into the native environment/system.
The best this advice can do is to tell women how to make it in a hostile ecology that evolved to exclude them, and regrettably, rarely is the system, itself, questioned.