Why are there so few women leaders at the top of the workforce?

A few days ago, the TOI had a small article that caught my eye. That a woman led the Republic Day parade in Delhi this year.  Along with a casual mention that there are very few women in the army, esp at senior positions.

And I looked around myself – how many senior women (senior to me that is ;-) do I know in the tech industry? A handful only. If I exclude those in HR, then I dont even need two hands.

It’s been a recurring theme. How women over the years have chosen to let go of that corner office. To tame their ambitions, if they ever dared to have them in the first place that is. About how crazy it is to juggle family and work and house all together.

Then I saw this link on one of my yahoo groups. It’s a TED talk by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She’s summed it up beautifully – the issues, the choices and the sacrifices working women grapple with; why there are so few women leaders in top positions today; as a woman, what to (not) do, if you want to get there; how each one of us, can make a difference. And she’s done it in simple, effective style. Do check out the video.

Some of the points that stood out for me (quotes from her talk are in black italics below).

Women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment.


What are the messages  – if you do want to stay in the workforce.

Note the if. “If you want to stay in the workforce“. The simplicity of that “if” undermines what a tough choice it is, and the cost that it comes at.


  1. Sit at the table“.

What the data shows:

  • Women systematically underestimate their own abilities.
  • Women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce.  57% men entering the work force negotiate their first salary. While only 7% of women do that.
  • Most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors.

Quite insightful for me. I thought that this happened only in the Indian context. Sad to know that its global. And by some quirk, I thought that it was only me. That it was just me who under estimated herself, who didn’t negotiate her salary, who thought her success is well, due to everyone’s pitching in!  It’s only lately that I’ve taken the time out to question those beliefs. Hence note the use of the past tense in the sentences above.


Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table. And no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success, or they don’t even understand their own success.


Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. And everyone’s nodding, because we all know this to be true.


We have to tell our daughters and our colleagues, we have to tell ourselves to believe we got the A, to reach for the promotion, to sit at the table. And we have to do it in a world where, for them, there are sacrifices they will make for that, even though for their brothers, there are not.


2. Make your partner a real partner.

I’ve become convinced that we’ve made more progress in the workforce than we have in the home. The data shows this very clearly. If a woman and a man work full-time and have a child, the woman does twice the amount of housework the man does, and the woman does three times the amount of child care the man does. So she’s got three jobs or two jobs, and he’s got one.

Again note the if. “If the woman and man work full-time and have a child“.

Also note that her data is most probably from the American context. I wonder what the housework and childcare ratios would be like for India.

We have to make it as important a job — because it’s the hardest job in the world — to work inside the home for people of both genders if we’re going to even things out and let women stay in the workforce.

Bull’s eye again. This talk is about women leaders in the workforce. Not at the home front. Women have only recently begun stepping into the workforce. But they’ve been the driving force on the home front for centuries. And doing a damn good leadership job there. Yet, it doesn’t count. It just doesn’t carry as much weight that women have built and led families, communities and societies over the years and centuries. They’ve built the fabric of society and civilization as we know it today. But they haven’t built corporations!

3. Don’t leave before you leave.

Once you have a child at home, your job better be really good to go back, because it’s hard to leave that kid at home — your job needs to be challenging. It needs to be rewarding. You need to feel like you’re making a difference.

Ironically enough, when I left my job, people just assumed that I left because of my son. Even the lady who took my exit interview.  For a while, I tried to correct that perception. And then I gave up.

I left for me. My job ceased to be challenging and rewarding enough. Not because I left the table. But external circumstances – like business decisions & the projects coming in.

Sheryl hits the bulls eye. Once you have a kid at home, the job needs to be extremely rewarding and fulfilling, for you to wake up each morning and want to go to work. It has to feel worthy of the sacrifices you make.

I want my son to have a choice to contribute fully in the workforce or at home. And I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.

Amen to that!


10 thoughts on “Why are there so few women leaders at the top of the workforce?

  1. Yeah, we need to keep listening to this speech. Very powerful hard-hitting one. Even I think I’ve been guilty in the past of assuming that women quitting could only be because of their child. :( Funnily enough, not many people understand that my husband opted for a slow-track for a while because of our kids…I should ask him more about whether he, as a man, can say this openly and not be scoffed at.

  2. Pingback: RESULTS: Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards – 2011 | The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker

  3. Congratulations :) This post in one of the winners of ‘Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards – 2011’ (TRBA 2011). We would like to create an ebook with all the winning entries in 47 categories on Feminism and Gender Issues in India (and one category on Animals Rights). Please do let us know if you are fine with your winning post/s being included in this ebook. ( Please click here to let us know).

  4. What I keep asking myself is – Why aren’t there more women empowering other women ? We all know the challenges that we have as working moms, but no one, and I mean not even other women do much to support each other. How many women push for more working mom friendly policies in offices ? How many women in leadership positions (not that there are many of them) push for policies that are conducive to working women or even create an atmosphere that brings women back to work after a baby ?
    I can barely think of any. The problem is that women in majority are good thinkers but not strategists.
    This is true especially in Tech Industry, because we are always looking at the short term goals, next month, next appraisal, next quarter. Recently I interacted with the creators of Levo League, this web company that focuses on women professionals. Its started by 2 women and its predominantly a tech company. And I wonder how amazing it must be to work in a company started by women and that too women who understand and empathize.
    I believe we have the skills and determination, what we lack is actually and strategically realizing what we want…

    • “How many women push for more working mom friendly policies in offices ? ”
      Not many. Working mothers are under tremendous pressure – just to get through everyday juggling work, kids and households. Many of them ‘strategically’ choose not to butt heads with the ‘policy makers’ at office. Due to lack of time, energy or other constraints. Plus – doing so would just single them out further as ‘working moms’ and many times, invite a silent, maybe subconscious, or conscious negative remarks from male colleagues “oh she needs special treatment/kid gloves”, policy makers, or worse, their managers.

      • I know and that’s exactly the problem. The policies and work atmosphere needs to come from the top instead of individual women asking for exceptions. I am also speaking from experience as my company offers the option of working from home (for everyone irrespective of gender or circumstances) but like most places, it is also left to the discretion of the managers.
        Although everybody is politicially correct and does not really say anything outright but it does single you out if you are a consistently work from home Mom.
        Recently, I also tried to sign up for a mentoring program at work (I say tried because it was such a pointless excercise). I chose a lady from the senior management as a mentor and the first topic she brought up during our discussion is how to avoid being singled out by going extra miles on all aspects. She went on and on about how things are and how perceptions matter and gave me ‘tips’ on how to not work from home if I want to get ahead! Literally !
        I was so disappointed is an understatement. This coming from someone who should have been inspiring other women to go get what they want and on their terms. Instead I came away wondering how much worse I would have to get as a mother or a wife or a homemaker to move up the corporate value chain….

      • “Instead I came away wondering how much worse I would have to get as a mother or a wife or a homemaker to move up the corporate value chain….”

        I’m beginning to question whether it will make any difference at all. Perceptions are perceptions. Subconscious. And therefore difficult to change. So would it really help me move up the corporate ladder – if i gave up my personal life? Which led to another question – does it really matter?
        Still looking for the answers.

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