Women in Leadership: The Dirty Little Secret

Posted February 13, 2012 in Latest News & Insights, Leadership

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has been an outspoken advocate for women in leadership.  Well… at least, she had lots to say about women in leadership on her TEDTalk.  Recently, eyebrows have been raised when Facebook appointed a male-only Board of Directors and, seemingly, Ms. Sandberg didn’t make a peep.  Which brings me to an ugly truth that I was once told about women in leadership:

Some women like being the only one at the table.

Now, you may think I’m being cynical and that maybe I’ve had a few bad female bosses in my life that’s made me jaded.  Or you may think that I’m waving some big “equal opportunity” banner because I’m a woman and think women should always be equally represented in leadership roles.  But you would be wrong.  I’ve had some great female bosses, peers and colleagues and I’ve had a couple of nightmares.  I’d say the same about my male bosses, peers and colleagues.  And, when it comes to leadership, I’d just like to see the best PERSON in the job regardless of gender.

What got me fired up here is the potential that what we’re seeing in Ms. Sandberg is evidence of someone who’s talking the talk but not walking the walk.

In the mid-2000’s, I found myself in what should have been a female executive’s nirvana job, working for a women’s organization that promoted women in leadership.  It was there that I first experienced the unspoken darkside of women “trailblazers”.

It came to light when I was expressing to one of my mentors disgust about the behaviour some so called “top women” were exhibiting towards members of our team (condescending/arrogant/rude…. you name it).  This seasoned former female CFO looked me in the eye and said “Look… some women like being the only woman at the table.  It’s part of their “brand”.  They really don’t like or want to help other women at all.”  And yet, here we were honouring them.  Charming.

Which leads me back to Sheryl Sandberg.  Maybe she got overruled by Mark Zukerberg.  Maybe she kicked and screamed and showed all the stats that said organizations with strong female board representation do better than homogenous male-only boards.  Maybe she did all that and more.

Or maybe she didn’t.  Maybe Sheryl likes being the woman who talks a lot about how women need to stick their hands up but then turns a blind eye instead of reaching out to grab that hand.  I doubt we’ll ever know the real truth (but I bet the women who report into her do).

Chalk it all up to another cautionary tale about personal branding and what happens when your actions don’t align with your hype.  Frankly, I’d rather have someone behave like Margaret Thatcher and be openly disdainful of women in leadership.  At least you know where you stand.

Keep it real people.

Happy leading!

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