DAVOS, Switzerland — It's the annual conclave of the presumed powerful, the World Economic Forum in Davos, with the wealthy flying in on private jets to discuss issues like global poverty. As always, it's a sea of men. This year, female participation is 17 percent.
Perhaps that's not surprising, considering that global business and political leaders are overwhelmingly male. In the U.S., only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women, a mere 3 percent of board chairs are women — and women are barely represented in President Barack Obama's Cabinet.
Indeed, I'm guessing that the average boardroom doesn't have much better gender equality than a team of cave hunters attacking a woolly mammoth 30,000 years ago.
So what gives? A provocative answer comes from Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who has written a smart book due out in March that attributes the gender gap, in part, to chauvinism and corporate obstacles — but also, in part, to women who don't aggressively pursue opportunities.
“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,” Sandberg writes in the book, called “Lean In.”
“We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”
Sandberg and I discussed the issue on a panel here in Davos, and I think that there is something real and important in what she says. When I lecture at universities, the first questions are invariably asked by a man — even at a women's college. When I point at someone in a crowd to ask a question, the women in the area almost always look at each other hesitantly — and any man in the vicinity jumps up and asks his question.
A McKinsey survey published in April found that 36 percent of male employees at major companies aspired to be top executives, compared with 18 percent of the women. A study of Carnegie Mellon MBA graduates in 2003 found that 57 percent of the men, but only 7 percent of the women, tried to negotiate a higher initial salary offer.
Sandberg, one of the most prominent women in corporate America, is not known as a shrinking violet. She confesses that when she was in elementary school, she trained her younger brother and sister to follow her around, listen to her give speeches and periodically shout: “Right!”
Yet she acknowledges that she has harbored many insecurities, sometimes shedding tears at the office, as well as doubts about her juggling of work and family.
When she joined Facebook as its No. 2, she was initially willing to accept the first offer from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder. She writes that her husband and brother-in-law hounded her to demand more, so she did — and got a better deal.
“I am hoping that each woman will set her own goals and reach for them with gusto,” Sandberg writes. “And I am hoping that each man will do his part to support women in the workplace and in the home, also with gusto.”
Yet I wish that there could be two versions of Sandberg's book. One marketed to young women would encourage them to be more assertive. One marketed to men (and women already in leadership) would emphasize the need for structural changes to accommodate women and families.
Is Sandberg blaming the victim? I don't think so, but I also don't want to relax the pressure on employers to do a much better job of recruiting and promoting women.
Nature and social mores together make motherhood more all-consuming than fatherhood, yet the modern job was built for a distracted father. That's not great for dads and can be just about impossible for moms — at least those who don't have great wealth or extraordinary spouses.
Sandberg famously leaves the office at 5:30 most days to be with her kids, but not many women (or men) would dare try that.
Some people believe that women are more nurturing bosses, or that they offer more support to women below them. I'm skeptical. Women can be jerks as much as men.
But we need more women in leadership positions for another reason: considerable evidence suggests that more diverse groups reach better decisions. Corporations should promote women not just out of fairness, but also because it helps them perform better. Lehman Bros. might still be around today if it were Lehman Bros. & Sisters.
So, yes, let's encourage young women to “lean in,” but let's also change the workplace so that when they do lean in and assert themselves, we're directly behind them shouting: “Right!”
Contact Mr. Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof,