Three insights into why we lack women leaders

As a female leader, I was interested in the observations of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg who has been quoted as saying women in business need to aim high and “keep your foot on the gas pedal”.

I was curious to understand what she meant by this. I definitely don’t believe women ought to ‘give up their femininity’ to succeed.

After listening to her TED talk on the topic, I have to concur much of what Sandberg says translates to Australia.

This generation will barely make a dent on the number of women in boardrooms around Australia – nor in senior leadership roles. The point Sandberg raises is what do we tell our daughters… and our sons? What lessons do we impart to inspire them to make the choices they want without fear of failure?

Sheryl gives us three insights:

1. ‘Sit at the table’ – this means women need to really participate, make a statement, stand up for themselves – don’t underestimate your own ability: ‘Own your own your success.’

This could be viewed as slightly pushy, however, how often do women not apply for the jobs that they don’t have every skill for – whilst their male equivalent would put himself forward?

There will be sacrifices that we make for playing a bigger game – and these are sacrifices our brothers won’t have to make:

I was having dinner with my daughter, 16, and son, 14, over the holidays and my son asked me if I would prefer to be a man or a woman. I instantly responded, ‘a woman’. When he asked the same question of my daughter, after some deliberation she said, ‘a man’. When I questioned why, she said, ‘they just get everything easier’.

This saddened me. At such a young age my daughter is already seeing limitations.

2. ‘Make your partner a real partner’ – Sheryl laments that in fact there has been more progress with equality in the workplace than on the domestic front.

She said working women work twice as hard on domestic chores and do three times the childcare than their male counterparts. She wonders if it is because from a very young age society puts more pressure on males to succeed. We need to make it easier for males to stay it home too. Men are not always welcomed at playgroup.

Another personal example:

A number of years ago I was called to see the vice principal of my daughter’s school. A spirited girl, she had pushed the boundaries and they wanted to discuss it with me specifically rather than my husband – who was the primary after-school carer.

This successful female educator said to me, “Your daughter just needs to see more of you – you travel a lot for work and she misses you terribly.” I responded, “She does have a parent with her every night of the week; her father…”

Here was one successful career woman telling another that the role model I was being for my daughter was not appropriate. And this was from a leader of a girl’s school.

Stereotyping is very, very hard to change.

3. ‘Don’t leave before you leave’ – Sheryl said that planning for pregnancy and children to fit neatly into a career often means women are planning to take time out of their career long before they need to.

In fact, they might even hold back on a promotion or responsibility because they think, ‘I might not be here next year’.

Once you have a child at home, returning to work is a massive sacrifice. So your job better be rewarding and challenging and you really need to be making a difference, because otherwise it is too hard and simply not worth the cost (both financially and emotionally).

We want to teach our children to make powerful choices based on what they really want, not what they think is prescribed for them.

One of Australia’s outstanding entrepreneurs, Naomi Simson has received many accolades and awards for the business she founded, including the 2011 Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year – Industry.


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