Check out this year’s commencement address at Barnard College by Sheryl Sandberg. (H/t to reader COB for the link and the idea for this post.)
It’s brave of her to throw a bucket of cold water in the face of graduating Seniors by telling them this:
As we sit here looking at this magnificent blue-robed class, we have to admit something that’s sad but true: men run the world. Of 190 heads of 2 state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.
I recognize that this is a vast improvement from generations in the past. When my mother took her turn to sit in a gown at her graduation, she thought she only had two career options: nursing and teaching. She raised me and my sister to believe that we could do anything, and we believed her. But what is so sad—it doesn’t just make me feel old, it makes me truly sad—is that it’s very clear that my generation is not going to change this problem. Women became 50% of the college graduates in this country in 1981, 30 years ago. Thirty years is plenty of time for those graduates to have gotten to the top of their industries, but we are nowhere close to 50% of the jobs at the top. That means that when the big decisions are made, the decisions that affect all of our worlds, we do not have an equal voice at that table.
She’s got a solid analysis of the reasons for this stasis, and some good advice for ambitious women, which if I summarize here will sound like a bunch of commencement address cliches but are actually pretty smart. I wish when she pointed out the negative correlation between success and likability for women that she had said, “F^ck likeability. You think Mark Zuckerberg gives a $hit about likeability?” Instead, she implicitly feeds the notion that likeability is something we need to worry about. I think telling women they’re not “likeable,” or that people find them “difficult personalities,” is a way to knock them off their game and get them to worry about trivial stuff they can’t control instead of worrying about decisive stuff they can at least partially control. (Kind of like this, h/t reader KV for the link.)
Heh. A few years ago at the Berks conference, we on the program committee got some negative feedback from some younger women that our plenary on the state of women in the historical profession was too much of a buzzkill. (They didn’t want to hear about just how bad it is, and how immoveable the percentages of women in tenured and tenure-track positions really is.) Back to the Sandberg speech–I thought this advice was pretty shrewd, too, about the “choice” to prioritize family over professional success:
But until that day, do everything you can to make sure that when that day comes, you even have a choice to make. Because what I have seen most clearly in my 20 years in the workforce is this: Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.
These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back. The problem is, often they don’t even realize it. Everyone I know who has voluntarily left a child at home and come back to the workforce—and let’s face it, it’s not an option for most people. But for people in this audience, many of you are going to have this choice. Everyone who makes that choice will tell you the exact same thing: You’re only going to do it if your job is compelling.
If several years ago you stopped challenging yourself, you’re going to be bored. If you work for some guy who you used to sit next to, and really, he should be working for you, you’re going to feel undervalued, and you won’t come back. So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.
What do you think? Do you think she gets it just about right–that success is for closers, with some acknowledgement of the powerful institutional forces arrayed against the success of even very privileged women like the Barnard class of 2011? Or do you think she’s not acknowledging these powerful forces enough?