In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg points to internal barriers that hold women back. Many are just “feminine” ways. Women are wired and acculturated to value relationships more than status and to avoid bragging. This looks like lower ambition. Women tend to speak more humbly; this looks like lower confidence. I agree that, to make it to the top, women must demonstrate ambition and confidence. But my hope is that one day leaders will understand and appreciate feminine as well as masculine style and see leadership in both.
Sheryl Sandberg goes beyond the issue of “having it all.” She suggests that women need to demonstrate more ambition. To avoid stereotyping, I suggest the question is whether women in general are less ambitious or express it differently. Sandberg is observing differences in how the prototypical male and female express ambition. The masculine way is to compete and win. Women in general are less likely to ask for what they want; they wait to apply for a position until they feel fully qualified; they have a harder time taking credit for their successes. We can coach women to appear more ambitious in the masculine way. I would like to see equal focus on coaching leaders to recognize and appreciate differences.
Is one reason that women aren’t proportionally represented at the leadership level in business because they lack the ambition or interest in power to be there? This question was debated a decade ago. Some women have ambition and want power in the masculine way. Other women simply define these terms differently. Typical female behaviors of avoiding taking credit or tooting her own horn mask ambition. Women who do appear ambitious are often caught in the “double bind.” To achieve gender diversity in leadership, we must broaden our definitions of “power” and “ambition.”