Women and Work: The So Sad Story of “Great to Good”

Women and the workplace have been much in the news of late.  Sheryl Sandberg’s recent “Lean In” book focuses on women adopting a different, ‘will to lead’ attitude .  Recent press regarding the gender wage gap (full-time working women earn 77 cents for every $1.00 a man makes) focuses on pay inequity.  And a recent article in The Atlantic, called “The Confidence Gap” is about….well, I think the title says it all.  If you look carefully, you’ll see a pattern:  In total, the current conversation focuses on two root causes.  First, the cultural and societal biases that put women at a disadvantage to men despite ample evidence of equal skills and preparation for work and careers.  Second, the things woman are NOT doing that then puts them at a disadvantage…not leaning forward, not taking risks, not pursuing careers in historically male-dominating professions.

While external biases and internal, self-imposed limitations are certainly real and in need of focus for and on behalf of women, I would suggest that there is a far sadder, even tragic lost opportunity reflected in the fact that women are not getting a fair shake; are not being valued for who and what they are in work and beyond.  This is where Jim Collins “Good to Great” comes in (along with my twist on this in the title to this post).

So, let’s start with Collins “Good to Great.”  It is one of only two business books I recommend and is a primer on what it takes to create and sustain a truly high-performing company.  Lessons abound, but the one relevant here has to do with what Collins calls the pinnacle of personal leadership…he calls it The Level-5 Executive.  The common thread of the CEOs of the companies that created enduring greatness was ‘a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will.’  He elaborates on each:

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Two of the characteristics are relevant for our discussion of women and work:  Accepting personal responsibility for poor results, never blaming others; and giving credit to others for success.  Hold on to these points for just a second while I go to The Atlantic article.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote ‘The Confidence Gap’ for the May, 2014 issue of The Atlantic.  Here is a direct quote:  “Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance — or other people — for their successes.”  This was one of many root causes behind what they called the confidence gap.  Kay and Shipman raise this as a problem.  But, look at it in light of Jim Collins observation of great leaders.  He articulates this very same dynamic as part of greatness.  They are one in the same, aren’t they?

So, here is the sad, sad story of women, work, and ‘Great to Good.’  It is NOT about what women are not doing.  It is not about how women should behave more like men to succeed.  The sad story is that the penchant of many women to embody what Jim Collins (and many others) considers a strength is labelled a problem, and thus something they need to change.  There is nothing more tragic than taking a powerful and adaptive mindset and set of behaviors, and squashing it out of an entire segment of the work force who naturally possess it, in the misguiding attempt to help them succeed.  The more I think about it, the more I despair.  This is the sad story of women and ‘Great to Good.’

What can be done?  Next post, I will go back to research done on gifted adolescent girls.  You’ll see that this isn’t a simple story of cultural bias, or confidence, or leaning in.  As any women reading this will attest, the dynamics around a growing young woman are complex and nuanced, and if we are to improve on the sad story of ‘helping’ adult women go from great to good, we must understand the underlying influences on growing, maturing girls.  Stay tuned……

One thought on “Women and Work: The So Sad Story of “Great to Good”

  1. Leslie Averill

    I like how you aligned points from Lean In, Good to Great, and the most recent Confidence Gap article. Thanks for writing this post, doing such a good job with it, and creating a sense of intrigue in me that I can’t wait to read your next piece.


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