"Lean In": Women's Work Is Still Never Done

"As soon as that baby's lips touched that girl's bosom, forget it," said Paul Tudor Jones, a successful hedge fund manager. He uttered those words in reference to trading acumen at an April symposium at the University of Virginia, and for many, the statement arguably makes him sound like quite a buffoon.

It's a sad reminder that despite females' great strides into the workforce, gender issues still exist. They're just rarely verbalized and considered impolite to mention. Although Jones admitted that motherhood is a "beautiful experience," it doesn't make up for his implication that that grand and beautiful commitment undermines women's intellects. He also said that motherhood is a "killer" when it comes to trading focus.

Remarks like these underline why Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is an important book. Sandberg shoots pretty straight from the hip about the complexities and difficult choices women still face in their careers, and how much of these choices and fears have everything to do with their lives and happiness.

No nonsense
Sandberg is one of corporate America's strongest women, and represents a growing number of top female managers. Too bad the number is growing glacially. As Facebook's chief operating officer, Sandberg champions women's issues -- a dangerous topic to verbalize at all in corporate America.

Even current events highlight some of Sandberg's themes. First off, corporate America recently lost one female CEO, a discouraging development at a time when when getting more women into higher positions relies on having more women in higher positions.

Lululemon's (NASDAQ: LULU  ) Christine Day recently resigned. I can't help but think: Dang it, we just lost another female CEO from the already small ranks. Apparently investors did take her seriously enough, though, given the stock's 17% plunge after her announcement. Day's departure obviously isn't viewed as a positive moment for Lululemon's performance  and growth potential. 

On a positive note, consider Gannett's (NYSE: GCI  ) recent $1.5 billion acquisition of Belo (NYSE: BLC  ) . Investors are thrilled, and bid the stock up by 35% given the potential growth opportunities after the announcement. But one element of the acquisition that The Wall Street Journal reported is a less high-profile one: This deal was negotiated between two female CEOs, Gannett's Gracia Martore and Belo's Dunia Shive. Martore said that given the women's relationship, their negotiations "had a lot less drama" than the traditionally negotiated deal, which sounds less adversarial than many such negotiations might be, with the parties involved truly focused on a useful business transaction.

One of the bankers involved in the deal, JPMorgan's Jennifer Nason, said, "There's often a lot of swashbuckling in deals. ... Here there was no nonsense, just a push to get it done, and do it right. We aren't here to be masters of the universe."

That's truly awesome.

Of course, Sandberg's book does bring up the idea that there is often a special highlight of executive women's actions, successes, and failures. They're held to a different standard than men because there are so few of them running around yet. It's why many women become afraid or concerned about going for powerful positions to begin with.

They can't handle the truth
Having now read Sandberg's book in its entirety, I'm not sure why some critics rejected it so vociferously, particularly female critics. Whether the ideas she shares are infuriating or not, they strike me as simply honest about many of the stumbling blocks women face.

Here are just a few highlights from the book that I found particularly thought-provoking, albeit disturbing:

  • Potential versus accomplishments: A 2011 McKinsey study showed that men are more often raised up the ranks for "potential," while women have to prove past accomplishment.
  • We do not "Like" this: Research has shown that success and likability are positively related for men, but negatively correlated for women. Believe it or not, this is true of both men's and women's attitudes. In other words, women also like other women less if they are successful.
  • Undercutting oneself: A Carnegie University study showed an incredible discrepancy in master's degree holders' salary negotiations. Of the pool, 57% of the male students tried to negotiate for a higher offer, but a mere 7% of women did. In separate studies, women often report their performance as lower than it is, while men judge theirs as higher.

Citations make up 30% of the Kindle edition of Lean In, so those who found Sandberg's words infuriating might want to count to 10. Although sometimes her words are personal anecdotes or metaphors -- like, say, women trying to cross a minefield in high heels -- most of her statements and opinions are backed up by research and studies.

Eradicate fear: Become better investors and build better lives
Women still have many choices to make, and there's a fine balance between begging women to "lean in" and letting them make their own choices, such as taking time out of the workforce to raise children. These are very personal, individual decisions, and all are legitimate.

Sandberg entreats women to "lean in" and get their seats at the table, and to stop undermining their own ambitions. However, she also admits that family matters very much.

A great deal of the book advocates bringing men to the kitchen table; in other words, truly pushing for more equitable partnerships in the "life" part of the work/life balance. In fact, a great deal of the book quite honestly places some of the onus on women to more boldly tackle the issues. How often do women not quite trust their better halves to take care of children?

Sandberg also suggests solutions. Flexible work schedules and other supportive workplace measures could bring more steps in the right direction so that women don't have to completely lean out. It's not all bad news by any stretch.

What does this have to do with investing? More than you think. Sandberg also mentioned the cognitive diversity I've often cited in my pieces about why more companies need women in many capacities. As Sandberg says: "The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve. Legendary investor Warren Buffett has stated generously that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was competing with only half of the population." (My colleague LouAnn Lofton wrote an entire book on how Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl.)

Sandberg also quoted Alice Walker: "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." She also begs women to ask themselves: "What would I do if I weren't afraid? And go do it."

That's universally good advice, which is why Sandberg's book is a good choice for summer vacation beach reading -- and serious soul-searching.

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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.


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  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2013, at 1:06 PM, MelissainVA wrote:

    I too found the controversy surrounding Sandberg's book to be a mystery. I only wish it had been available to read 20 years ago. However, I do not understand what this article has to do with investing or refuting the moronic comments of Paul Tudor.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2013, at 1:29 PM, Tomohawk52 wrote:

    "In separate studies, women often report their performance as lower than it is, while men judge theirs as higher." I taught chess in elementary schools for about 20 years and my experience was identical to this. Boys almost always over-rated their skills, and girls almost always under-rated them. It starts early.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2013, at 3:54 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    MelissainVA,

    It definitely would have been a great read for 20 years ago. I remember how things were 20 years ago too!

    Paul Tudor Jones is a hedge fund guy, and he was answering a question about women getting to the top at hedge funds. The upshot was that once women have children, it destroys their trading focus. I'm not an advocate of short-term trading, but rather long-term investing, BUT, this area is part of the general investing world though. So his comments could have been very crushing for a lot of women who are excellent traders or investors, or hoping to go into that area.

    Here is an entire article about the statements:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/paul-tudor-jon...

    Also, more on the investing angle, the link to LouAnn Lofton's article "Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl" has more indepth research she came across while writing her book. There are a lot of studies that support women being very good investors and in some ways maybe even better than men (again, long-term focus).

    Tomohawk52, that's really interesting that you observed that behavior in chess classes! I'm sure there are plenty of venues where we might see this kind of behavior. Speaking of females and chess, did you ever read Phiona Mutesi, a female chess prodigy from Uganda:

    http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/10/world/africa/uganda-chess-teen

    And an update here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/witw/articles/2013/04/05/chess-...

    An amazing story. And she's from a place where females definitely have a very difficult time, much more difficult than here. She is described as the "ultimate underdog" in this article I found. So good for her! (Kind of OT, but it's inspiring.)

    Best,

    Alyce

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