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The Sheryl Sandberg lesson: why a critical mass of women at the top is important

Dorothy Dalton from
March 7, 2012
Dorothy Dalton biz pic Feb 2012

The Facebook brouhaha regarding the lack of women on its newly formed board seems to have settled down. Analysis and input from agitated and confused commentators streaming in from across the globe has reduced to a trickle. Sandberg herself seems to have been somewhat silent throughout and I have been waiting with a curious and watchful eye for a definitive statement or explanation.  Who knows what is happening in the upper echelons of Facebook. The announcement has sent out very mixed and disappointing messages to the diversity intelligentsia.  Although a member of other boards, Sandberg is not on the board of the very company she is publically credited to having powered-up to become the corporate juggernaut it is today.

Aren’t we all wondering why that is? Was she deliberately excluded within spitting distance of the top table? Let’s not forget that Facebook started out as a site for grading “hot chicks” on campus, so perhaps not a surprising decision from Zuckerberg.   Was she offered a position and turned it down?  What is the behind the scenes sub-plot, because if you are like me, you think there must be one.

Apart the very obvious irony that women make up 58% of Facebook, they are also responsible for 80% of all consumer purchasing decisions and Facebook’s revenue is currently reliant on advertising. But what struck me hardest is that Mark Zuckerberg at only 27, despite being firmly rooted and tapped into the very core and definition of Gen Y in every sense, made a decision consistent with one taken by a man many years his senior. That is, to run his company with a bunch of white men.

Some pundits believe that as he maintains overall control, any board whatever the composition, male or female, will be window dressing only. We would possibly only be talking about tokenism anyway. And we don’t need that.

So despite a general twisting of gender balance knickers, will this board composition decision made in the stratosphere of the business and venture capital world, make any real difference to employees and the women on the ground at Facebook or anywhere else?

Ground level
Gen Y Facebook was listed in a Glassdoor report as 7th in the US for employee satisfaction. The average age of the Facebook employee is 26, with 33% women, low against the general workplace, but higher than the sector average of 25% and higher than its major competitor Google. Reportedly efforts are in hand to retain women, including 4 months paid parental leave, not common I am reliably informed in the US. Flexible schedules are listed as a major perk.

These policies can be introduced by any board regardless of composition as I learned from a Brussels connection only last month. The CEO and HR Director (both male) of the company are taking break- through, work/ life policy initiatives, aiming to stem the attrition of mid- level women to increase the percentage on their leadership team which is currently only 10%.

Going up
What will be significant for this young group of Facebook women, although clearly inspirational, is not what Sheryl Sandberg says at Davos or on heavily clicked TedX videos. Neither will it be today’s composition of Zuckerberg’s board, with its mystifying strategy.  The critical KPIs will be the policies implemented in the organisation by their leadership team, regardless of gender.  What we need is for this generation of women to be able to advance their careers in greater numbers, by making it attractive for them to stay in the workplace. Change will be facilitated from the bottom up, growing the badly needed critical mass of women making a noise, which the Zuckerbergs of the world in their boardrooms can’t ignore.

The real test for Sandberg will be as CV Harquil in her Forbes article suggests how she leverages her position now to sponsor other women to reach this critical mass,

The average professional woman coping with the disappointment of a denied promotion would normally be pre-occupied with issues around paying the mortgage, self -motivation and her next steps.  Somewhat cynically, I would imagine that a billion dollar plus portfolio and becoming super wealthy  after the flotation, will take the edge of any fallout and feelings of isolation. Sandberg must also be one of the hottest talent tickets in global corporate life and could get a new job anywhere, anytime. So I suspect she will be fine

Never has it been more clearly illustrated that one woman, no matter how successful and inspirational, cannot go it alone.  Sandberg will now quite rightly be judged on what she does for other women deeper in her organization.  She will definitely have to ” walk” her own “talk”, TedX and otherwise.

Dorothy Dalton, International Talent Management Strategist, Career Coach and Co-Founder of 3Plus International  set up to mentor and sponsor women in the workplace.  Come to the Mini-Mentoring event for professional women in Brussels on March 22nd 2012 Use the promotion code JUMP2012 and be eligible for the special price of €28.  Click here for further information and to register!   Become part of that critical mass of women making a noise!



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