Three secrets into female leadership

I was forwarded a news article this week about Facebook’s number two leader: Sheryl Sandberg. She had been at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland on the eve of Facebook’s listing announcement. She has been quoted as saying women need to aim high and “keep [their] foot on the gas pedal”.

I was curious to understand what she meant by this. I definitely don’t believe that women need to “give up their femininity” to succeed. In fact, there is nothing worse than trying to do business with an aggressive, pushy woman (or man for that matter).

I considered that perhaps it was a cultural thing. But after listening to her TED talk on the topic I have to concur that much of what she says does translate to Australia.

This generation we will barely make a dent in the number of women in boardrooms around Australia, nor in senior leadership roles, but the point she 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?

Sandberg gives us three insights.

1. “Sit at the table”: this means women need to really participate, make a statement, stand up for themselves and not underestimate their own ability. Own your own your success. This could be viewed as slightly pushy, however, how often do women avoid applying for a job they may not have every skill for, while their male equivalent would put himself forward?

There will be sacrifices that we make for playing a bigger game… and these are sacrifices that 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: Sandberg laments the 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 at home too. Men are not always welcomed at playgroup.

Interesting that a number of years ago I was called up to see the vice principal of my daughter’s school. As the spirited girl she is 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, “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”.

She realised what she had just said. 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. At that point I did ask what they were teaching the girls about financial independence and fulfilling careers.

Stereotyping is very, very hard to change.

3. Don’t leave before you leave: Sandberg said that in planning for a pregnancy and to have children fit neatly into a career often means that 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”.

From the moment women think about having a baby, they might be less career focused, so much so their job may become far less fulfilling. Yet once you have a child at home to return to work is a massive sacrifice. So your job better be rewarding, 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).

If you took your “foot off the gas” too early in your career, ie. you didn’t take a promotion for instance, then this might mean you don’t have the best job to return to.

I concur with Sandberg – we want to teach our children to make powerful choices on what they want to do. Not what they think is prescribed for them, because that is how it has always been.

Naomi Simson is considered one of Australia’s ‘Best Bosses’. She is an employee engagement advocate and practices what she preaches in her own business. RedBalloon has been named as one of only six Hewitt Best Employers in Australia and New Zealand for 2009 and awarded an engagement scorecard of over 90% two years in a row – the average in Australian businesses is 55%. RedBalloon has also been nominated by BRW as being in the top 10 Best Places to Work in Australia behind the likes of Google. One of Australia’s outstanding female entrepreneurs, Naomi regularly entertains as a passionate speaker inspiring people on employer branding, engagement and reward and recognition. Naomi writes a blog and is a published author – and has received many accolades and awards for the business she founded –


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