Debate over the existence of a “glass ceiling” for women for top leadership positions has been renewed by the publication of the book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and some new research data on gender equity.

Sandberg is ranked on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Her career as a “feminist champion” was accentuated by her 2010 TED talk where she dramatically presented her lean-in message. This was followed by a graduation commencement speech to the Barnard College class of 2011 where she repeated her message. These two events made her      message viral.

Lean In is a book built around advice for women seeking to succeed, based on Sheryl Sandberg’s own incredible career success and experience of balancing career and family. Her book is full of pragmatic strategies and tips—everything from how to negotiate a raise to how to stop people pleasing behavior; mentorship; building a satisfying career, and urging women to abandon the myth of “having it all.” Sandberg’s major argument is that if women want a serious career and rise to the top, they must be passionate about their aspirations and go for it, as successful men do.

Sandberg has attracted both passionate supporters and critics to her message. Sandberg makes the point that is incontrovertible—women are woefully underrepresented in top leadership positions in business and government.

 Perhaps the income gap—which is rapidly increasing in the US. And Canada—is at the crux of the gender equity issue. A Pew Center study released in May, 2013 revealed that working mothers are the sole or primary provider in a record 40% of U.S. households.  Women still don’t have equal pay in many jurisdictions, and the standard of living for the middle class and the poor continues to decline. And clearly women are at the center of these disturbing trends.

Critics of Sandberg say she does what some other successful women have done—blame other women who are less successful for not trying hard enough. From that perspective, doesn’t Sandberg reinforce the views of male dominated organizations who can use her argument against upwardly mobile women—“you’re not trying hard enough?” One of Sandberg’s chief critics has been Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who published an article in Atlantic Magazine, argues Sandberg is holding women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success. Sandberg makes no reference to the millions of single mothers in the workplace, while advising women to find supportive spouses as part of the solution to leaning in. Other critics say Sandberg has a host of assistants and household help to allow her to devote substantially more attention to her career, a luxury most middle class and lower income women don’t have.

Various studies have shown that women have made only incremental progress at the highest levels of Fortune 500 companies and the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 19th and Canada 20th respectively among   132 countries, in stark contrast to significantly larger numbers in Europe, Asia and South America. In my article “ Why Women May Be Better Leaders Than Men,” I described detailed research on the glass ceiling in current times.

Recent research from Concordia University by Steven Applebaum shows that even though women may actually be better suited than men to hold leadership positions, only 3% of top executives among Fortune 500 firms are women. He says that’s because “women are still perceived as inferior leaders.” He goes to say “This ill-conceived notion needs to change—and fast. At the current rate, we won’t see gender equality in the boardroom until 2081.”

Applebaum and his associates focused their research on gender leadership styles, leadership perceptions and the challenges women face. Out of all leadership styles, “transformational leadership” emerged as the most desirable—qualities such as positive relationship skills; and being an inspirational role model—and were exhibited more frequently by women than men.

The obvious questions are: Why does the glass ceiling persist? And what should be done about it?

Pamela Stone's in Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett inOff-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, argue that women are forced out of their careers by inhospitable workplaces, dominated by the masculine competitive model of organizations. They suggest this model may be at the root of preventing real diversity in the workplace from advancing.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted a study to            determine the challenges faced by working women and published their findings in The Glass Ceiling: Domestic and International Perspectives. In addition to the challenge of finding an appropriate balance between work life and home life, the study also cited isolation and loneliness as well as being a woman in a man's world.

Should companies consider setting voluntary internal targets, and work consciously to increase the number of women on boards and as CEOs? Targets are not the same as affirmative action, the model used in the U.S., which establishes quotas to correct historical under representation of certain groups. That practice has actually led to backlash and the questioning of  these groups' abilities. Some experts, such as Harvard's Rosabeth Moss   Kanter and Robin Ely, argue that a critical mass of women in senior leadership and on boards is required, and not at entry-level and mid-level positions. A study of corporate boards by the Wellesley Center for Women found that to have a critical mass of three or more women could cause fundamental change in the boardroom and enhance corporate governance. In 2002, Norway passed legislation, instructing publicly traded companies to     have at least 40% female board members by mid-2005. 

In an article in the Harvard Business Review by Hermina Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb, contend, “A significant body of research shows that for women, the subtle gender bias that persists in organizations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.”

The authors argue, “It‘s not enough to identify the ‘right’ skills and competencies as if in a social vacuum…Traditional high-potential, mentoring and leadership education programs are necessary but not sufficient.” They contend companies need to take additional action by educating men and women about second-generation bias; have women internalize a leadership identity; and develop a sense of purpose. Second-generation bias is defined as a “paucity of role models for women, gendered career paths and gendered work, women’s lack of access to networks and sponsors, and leadership being defined in masculine characteristics.”

Tamara Vrooman, CEO of Vancity Savings, Canada’s largest credit union, is a Canadian example of a female who has reached a top leadership position at a young age, after a career as Deputy Minister of Finance forth B.C. Government. Vancity was recently named as one of Canada’s 50 most socially responsible companies. In an interview, I asked Vrooman her perspective on the issue of gender equity at the top and Sheryl Sandberg’s view described in her book, Lean In.

Vrooman says “Women do have to be passionate about their goals…but this doesn’t mean being like men. One of the reasons we want to have more women in leadership positions because they bring a different perspective than men.” Vrooman went on to say that there’s a “superwoman” tension, with an imbalance of expectations in the home that impacts women’s careers. Many young women make the choice of a trade off in values, she contends. Even where there are professional parental leave provisions, even male leaders worry about critical perceptions of bosses, colleagues, family and friends if they take advantage of those provisions.

“You can have 50/50 in the workplace,” Vrooman argues, “but it’s still 90/10 in the home.” She agrees with Sanford’s contention that women who aspire to top leadership positions have to choose a life partner who believes in equality in the home as well as work. Finally, Vrooman says that the culture of organizations has embraced a stereotype of what leadership should look like, which is predominantly male in characteristic, and that has to change. We need both male and female characteristics, she says, and both women and men can possess those.

In a new book, The Athena Doctrine, co-authors Michael D’Antonio and John Gerzema reported their research of 64,000 people in 13 diverse countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia that indicate widespread dissatisfaction with skills and competencies that are perceived as more feminine. In particular, that view was shared by nearly 80% of the millennial generation (both men and women)--most notably in highly masculine societies like Brazil, South Korea, Japan and India. Two-thirds of survey respondents felt that “the          world would be a better place if men thought more like women.”

Deborah Spar, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, argues “we need women in leadership positions not only because they can manage as well as men but because they manage differently than men. We need them because they tend to make different kinds of decisions and bring different ideas to the table….And we need more men to recognize that having women around the table isn’t just a nice thing to do. It makes for a better table.”

In addition to an organizational and talent assessment system which holds women back from promotion, Applebaum says other barriers exist, including the oldest one of motherhood. He says companies tend to favor leaders who are prepared to put in grueling hours, unpredictable schedules and frequent travel which for mothers of young children are undesirable.

Organizations are inadvertently undermining their gender diversity efforts when they advise women to proactively seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how men are seen and the qualities and experiences people associate with leadership.

In the final analysis, Sandberg would argue that women must takeresponsibility to lean in and make it happen. Surely organizations and the men who run them should share that responsibility. Otherwise, it would be akin to arguing that equal achievement in civil rights was the sole responsibility of the African-American people in the U.S., with no         responsibility for government and business.

 * This article was written with the assistance of Makenzie Chilton, a life coach in Vancouver, B.C.

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