What’s So Great About Sheryl Sandberg’s Ted Talk AND What She’s Missing

January 13th, 2011 | By Contributing Writer | Posted in Business & Economy, Innovation | 1 Comment

This is a guest blog by Jean Brittingham.

I was very pleased to see Ms. Sandberg, COO of Facebook suggest some solutions for the mistakes that we women make in making our way in the work world. And even more pleased to hear her acknowledge the significant issue of dualism in our society as it relates to the interpretation of strong men and strong women. We (and in most studies and instances this includes women) are not so sure that we like strong, passionate, forceful and successful women as leaders. We’re pretty sure that we do like those traits in men.

This hard truth is a glimpse into a primary and deeply embedded belief in the culture of human society that is at the heart of why the leadership shift that we need must happen through a massive and meaningful women’s entrepreneurial movement. Only in a society where we have changed the culture from the top of our own organizations will the other efforts to gain equal access and opportunity meet success.

Really?

Yes.

And here’s why. Culture is an amazingly strong and unwieldy force. It is largely unnamed and invisible. Asking someone to explain the essence of their organizations’ culture is like asking a fish to explain water. The Denison Culture Survey folks, arguably the holders of the world’s leading database on organizational culture, say that culture is like an iceberg—most of it is hidden and underwater. Further, it is that hidden and unacknowledged part that will wreck your ship.

In his book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn unveils the concept of “mother culture” as a way of helping us understand not only how ubiquitous and unexamined most of our culture is, but more importantly how deeply we respect and obey these unexamined norms. Our culture is who we are and what we will become. It is our protection and nutrition. Our laws and societal norms don’t form our culture—they are built upon our culture.

So where does this strong aversion to women as leaders come from and why does it endure even now when the world has dramatically shifted to one where the very skills unique to the female half of our species are those most needed in leaders today?

At this point I could go into a long discussion and explanation of the role that the rise of the male-dominant monotheistic religion and the concurrent rise of legal property rights has played in creating our current culture. But let’s suffice it to say that these ideas, of right and wrong for women, have been in development for millennia (which is a very long time).

But we can simplify the analysis dramatically if we examine the primary mechanism of culture—the conversation. The language and stories of society offer us a most interesting window into the issue of strong, competent women as somehow “wrong.” Our feelings about this, individually and collectively, are set from the beginning by the language chosen to support the culture.

Good girls are Nice.

Good boys are, well–just good.

And everyone knows, nice is different than good.

Nice is polite, pleasant, kind and respectable and modest.

Good is skilled, superior and respectable.

There you have it.

It can be no surprise then that corporate cultures expect women to be capable and nice and know their place and men to be capable and skilled and get the job done no matter what. After all, nice girls grow up to be women and good boys grow up to be men.

And it’s just not very likely that this dominate culture, which prevails in nearly every corporate, government, religious and civil society organization on the planet today, will change no matter how consistent women are in being at the table, keeping our hand raised and negotiating for better and more equitable compensation.

It will change in two related and meaningful ways.

First, by men and women openly talking and exposing this culture without recrimination or need for apology. And second by building new companies with new cultures that work the way women entrepreneurs work. Their success at navigating the waters of the next economy will be the final tipping point for a return to balance between the masculine and feminine in the power structures of our society.

Because as Sheryl says, “if half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, it will be a better world.”

It would be good and nice.

1 Comment

  1. Britt Stromberg
    Jan 13, 2011

    Wow, Jean. Utterly fascinating post and very thought provoking. I’m so “masculine” in how I work with clients. I often wonder if I’m being to too “nice” or even, gasp, touchy-feely when I integrate mindful “feminine” language into my process. Screw it. The world clearly needs more of that.