There are a lot of structural barriers holding women back, such as inflexible workplaces, historical pay inequities and public policies that put the burden of child care mostly on mothers. Because these barriers are real and well-recognized, debate is ongoing about how best to address them. As that work continues, perhaps the key to making real progress is to recognize that women are held back not only by structural barriers but by unthinking stereotypes, double standards and antiquated assumptions about the leadership of men and women.
By the time they make it to the top rung, both male and female CEOs have to accept that every aspect of their lives will be scrutinized and every decision, large or small, will be second guessed. Just to survive, leaders of every substantial organization eventually develop both a thick skin and a certain indifference to whether they are liked or not. Yet, when it comes to judging men and women CEOs, a double standard applies.
Research shows that as male leaders become more powerful, they are better liked by both men and women. As women become more powerful, the opposite is true. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is focusing attention on this “likeability penalty” as an example of women being held back by forces that businesses—as a rule—are powerless to resolve. These forces operate within men and no less in women. Most of the nitpicking Sandberg describes in her book is by women criticizing other women. One of Sandberg’s primary goals in her controversial new book Lean In is to bring these forces more into public consciousness.
Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer recently paid the likeability penalty. When it was reported that Mayer clamped down on telecommuting, she faced howls of criticism from observers who linked her decision to her own parenting choices, noting that Yahoo built a nursery next to the CEO’s office. Putting the merits of ordering some 200 at-home workers back to the office aside, it’s likely that had the CEO of Yahoo been named Morris Mayer, he would have escaped such personal criticism and might even have been appreciated for challenging the costs of telecommuting.
Part of this scrutiny, no doubt, is precisely because, in 2013, there are so few women CEOs. When half the corner offices and board seats are occupied by women, there will no longer be a need to play out The Mommy Wars: Boardroom Edition and all leaders will be evaluated on the same criteria. However, to make that goal a reality, organizations have to figure out how to make sure that high-performing women stick around. The record, so far, is not inspiring.
I asked Christine Jacobs, the longest-serving woman CEO of all U.S. companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange, what she would do if she were starting her career in 2013. The CEO of Buford, Georgia-based medical-device maker Theragenics said she would be attracted to a startup. “Rigid corporations are no places for any kind of talent to flourish,” she says. “To the extent they protect the status quo, they are not good places for young women—or young men for that matter—and do not represent the most exciting career opportunities.”
Jacobs marvels at the headwinds and tailwinds that buffet younger female workers. On the one hand, the women are boundlessly realistic about their careers. “They are inherently looking for good bosses,” she says “and will do anything to live up to expectations.” On the other hand, there are still too few women training in technical areas. “I’ve had exactly one female nuclear chemist come through here in 25 years,” she says.