The September 2013 issue of, no, not Vogue, but Harvard Business Review has asked the question already: where are the female leaders? They sought out reasons, practical solutions, and discussed Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophy of leaning in. Many have asked this same question before. For example, PWC compiled a big report in 2007 and so did a lot of other big advisories. In January news spread of a Bain study, which concluded that women who started their careers with the goal of becoming a CEO became utterly demotivated just a few years into the job. What a surprise.
According to Bain, women start their career with similar expectations to men but they diverge pretty quickly. In general, women feel less comfortable about the feedback they receive and are lacking role models. HBR conducted a big study on their alumni and concluded that a lack of support and changing priorities seem to be the main reasons why women give up. This points to the problem of women being less supported on a societal, organisational and personal level in their aspirations.
This is bad news, of course, and it will be very hard work to change all of these things. The image of feminism in the media is quite bad. There have been big campaigns about why we don’t need feminism, how “feminazis” want to enslave men and so on. Lots of really smart women do not feel they are being discriminated against and therefore don’t demand equality with the strength feminism might need.
Legislative change will be one powerful game changer for true equality. However, in the past people and corporations have both shown great creativity to avoid changes that did not suit them. The true transformation has to come from within society and must be supported by the majority.
Leaders like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, Angela Merkel or Maryam Mirzakhani show us how it can be done. They achieved tremendous things in areas dominated by men and continue to push forward images of powerful women. Nonetheless, they are unicorns. When they leave, it is uncertain whether or not another woman will fill in the gap and, even so, it is difficult for such anomalies to be realistic role models. Most organisations lack credible female role models who women can associate themselves with. Most people need to find inspiration from someone who has a similar background to them, not necessarily someone who comes from a top school or is a Google or McKinsey alumna. We need role models we can identify with!
For our generation, it is inevitable that we will make many mistakes, that we will reach numerous dead ends and that we are likely to be pretty frustrated at times. In her book, Sheryl Sandberg mentions that, as student, she was convinced that discrimination was a thing of the past. She was well-educated, driven, smart and full of ambitions. What could stop her? Yet, many years later, she published a book that aims to help us overcome discrimination, because it still exists. Whether we feel it directly or not, we are all affected by it, and assuming anything else is just naive. To overcome it, we should network and be there for each other. We should follow our ambitions in spite of all the obstacles in our way and all the potential frustration.
In our society, being ambitious is not a female characteristic and many of us are afraid of coming off as too masculine or selfish. Yet, we have to understand that it is us who will have to drive the change. We will have to lean in and work for our goals but we will also have to form a community. Helping each other, discussing our goals and how to achieve them and passing advice on to others will be crucial to become the generation of female leaders.
We will have to start working together to become that generation and it will be hard but we will achieve our goals in the end. Why? Because we will deserve it.