Stop Blaming Women for Holding Themselves Back at Work

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“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” So wrote Sheryl Sandberg in the book that has become an odd combination of girl-power mantra and explanation (even justification) for why there are still so few women at the highest echelons of most companies.       

But, as many women already suspected, it turns out that educated, ambitious women are not failing to achieve the corner office because they’re insufficiently tough, savvy, or competitive at work. It’s also not because they are diverted during their 30s and 40s by the demands of breast-feeding and test prep and the like. They are not “ratcheting back” or “opting out” or failing to “lean in.”

And now there’s a study to prove it. In the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, researchers describe what they learned by surveying 25,000 MBA graduates of Harvard Business School over three generations. Not surprisingly, they found that although women and men express the same amount of ambition at the outset of a career, men achieve higher status in companies overall as well as a higher degree of job fulfillment. But here’s the crucial point: The authors found no correlation at all between career success and decisions an individual makes to accommodate family, by limiting travel, choosing more flexible hours, or moving laterally within a company.

“Women were more likely than men to have made such decisions,” the authors write, “but again, none of these factors explained the gender gap in senior management. In fact, both men and women in top management teams were typically more likely than those lower down in the hierarchy to have made career decisions to accommodate family responsibilities.” In other words, very successful people — men and women — demand more flexibility at work and more accommodations for their home lives.

Why is it that we, as a culture, have been so quick to latch on to the narrative that women are failing to achieve true equality because they essentially take themselves out of the running for the top jobs? Perhaps it is a uniquely American desire to uphold the myth of the meritocracy, the ideal of the level playing field. If we can pin a woman’s stalled trajectory on the fact that she took too much maternity leave, or she was devoted to the point of obsession to her progeny and took her eye off the ball at work, or she conceived and bore too many children, or she can’t or won’t do the hours or the face time needed to succeed, or she didn’t find the right mentor, or she couldn’t figure out the rules of the game, or she didn’t try hard enough — then at least we preserve the possibility that some women, if they play their cards exactly right, can succeed.

Very few commentators in all the recent bloviating about female success have come out and said what the HBR authors have: that the problem lies with the culture in the workplace itself. Most women work full-time through their child-rearing years, and yet they achieve less than men at work  (measured by numbers of direct reports, bottom-line responsibility, and senior-management status) because, well, they’re women. There are wide gaps between the way women envision their futures (professionally, as well as domestically) and the way those futures evolve over time not because of the choices they make, necessarily, but because the systems within which they live are entrenched and fundamentally sexist.

“The ways we talk about women’s careers often emphasize their willingness to scale down or forgo opportunities, projects, and jobs. The very premise seems to be that women value career less than men do, or that mothers don’t want high-profile, challenging work,” the authors write. “At a certain point the belief that a woman’s primary career obstacle is herself became conventional wisdom, for both women and men.”

Instead of blaming the systems that women work and live in for their failure to gain equality at work, we blame the women themselves — and women internalize and shoulder that blame. I will never forget being interviewed when I was about seven months pregnant by an author writing about women who had delayed having children. What I remember most about the interview was the way I kept saying, over and over, how grateful I was to my bosses for accommodating my pregnancy, for allowing me to sneak out to doctor appointments and take a little time around the edges to deal with my impending motherhood. I was a senior editor at a prominent national magazine at the time and had worked week after week at a grueling pace for years. No one at the company would have doubted my commitment, my ambition, or my work ethic.

Yet despite all this, my impulse was to assume a posture of apologetic gratitude, as though I believed (or feared) that having a baby would make me somehow less of an employee: less reliable, less driven, less creative — a diminished asset. As my interviewer gently pointed out, it never occurred to me to regard parenthood as an aspect of adult life to which I was entitled, let alone to ask my bosses for further accommodations: a richer parental-leave policy, say, or a day-care subsidy.

Try harder. That’s the message that women hear all around. Try harder to be happy. Try harder to be skinny. Try harder to be a good employee, mother, wife, daughter, friend. Try harder to feed your family nutritious meals and to give your child every possible opportunity. Try harder to find “flow” at work. Try harder to succeed. But, as the HBS study reminds us, when there’s a whole lot of trying without commensurate succeeding, then you have to start to consider that the game is rigged. And the risk to entertaining that thought is great indeed, for the thought that follows is a weighty one. What are we going to do about it? Perhaps the first step is to stop channeling all of that criticism inward or toward individual women and instead turn it outward. Companies need to try harder, too.