Increasingly, a great deal of media coverage and public discussion focuses on the growing number of women in senior corporate positions. Women such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, have become renowned public figures whose success is held as an example of how far women have come in their struggle for gender equality. They are seen to have shattered the glass ceiling.
Whilst this success shouldn’t be belittled, there remain problems with the media’s portrayal of these senior women as well as the criticism of their decisions and practices that outpaces those directed at their male counterparts. The hyper-visibility of these women and the attention surrounding their success have created high (feminist) expectations and heavy criticism when they fall short. This raises the question: Why do we assume that as successful and powerful women, they stand for gender equality? Why do we imbue these women with role model status, and how helpful is it to do so?
Having broken through the “glass ceiling”, Mayer and Sandberg now exist on a “glass cliff” (Ryan and Haslam 2005): a precarious place where they are hyper-visible and constantly scrutinised. In some cases this criticism is of their ability as women to do “men’s jobs”, but feminists reprimand them too. Whilst being held up as feminist icons, they are simultaneously knocked for a lack of commitment to gender diversity, or for being ‘bad’ role models, and are somehow expected to be representative of all women.
Mayer in particular has come under scrutiny for ‘banning’ her employees at Yahoo from working from home. This is seen to particularly disadvantage parents (read: women) and make the work/life balance impossible for her (female) employees. What is striking about the debate in media and public discussion is the surprise and outrage that Mayer “as a woman”, could implement this policy. Despite Mayer being first and foremost a CEO of a Silicon Valley company, she is expected to make her business decisions according to what would best suit her (female) employees, simply because she is a woman. Why is it assumed that successful women should be concerned about gender equality, rather than getting the most from their employees? Additionally, given that women’s success in organisations is often dependent on their becoming more like their male counterparts (Wajcman 1999) and that at the top of organisations there is much less difference in management style between men and women (Rutherford 2002), why do we expect senior women to behave “as women”?
Female role models are very influential on women’s career development and their importance cannot be overstated. Women are underrepresented in positions of power and senior roles, and a lack of good role models is often cited as a barrier to their success (see for example Catalyst and Opportunity Now 2000). This leads to a ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma as more women are needed to be role models, but they don’t get there because of the lack of visible senior women. Yet the problem with this argument is that it assumes women in senior positions will always be ‘good’ role models, and that they have an obligation to be so. In a recent study by Kelan (2012) into the experiences of young professional women, many felt that female role models presented to them were ‘not right for them’ due to their having different experiences and priorities. Sealy and Singh (2009) argue that women choose their role models ‘affectively’; according to their emotional connections, and the need to feel an affinity with the role model for the relationship to be beneficial. Whilst women like Mayer and Sandberg may offer an example of success and give hope for other women, in reality their path to success is not one that will always be open to women of different economic, social and/or ethnic backgrounds. However, we also have to question why we place extra (feminist) expectations upon successful women, and assume that they should and will be perfect role models, in addition to their day job.
References and further reading
Rutherford, S. (2002). Any difference? An analysis of gender and divisional management styles in a large airline. Gender, Work & Organization, 8(3), 326-345.
Wajcman, J. (1998). Managing like a man: Women and men in corporate management. Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd.