In the TV show Mad Men, Betty Draper epitomized the ideal of American womanhood in the go-go era of the 1960s. She was Grace Kelly gorgeous and Bryn Mawr-educated with a drop dead handsome husband who was minting money as a successful Madison Avenue ad agency partner.
She presided over a stately Colonial manse with a spectacular wardrobe and a housekeeper to help look after her children. She was a poised and effective corporate wife, the perfect accoutrement for client and business functions. “Is this the one where I talk? Or the one where I don’t talk?”
Betty had it all. A blonde version of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, if you will. But it wasn’t as it seemed. And like many women of her time, she had no clear path to fulfillment and a happy life beyond trading up to a different husband. She had to rely on her core offerings of beauty and charm, the currency for women of that era.
Flash forward to the future.
Sheryl Sandberg is the new icon of feminine success. She is armed with two degrees from Harvard and a career foundation at the World Bank, McKinsey and U.S. Department of the Treasury. She gained entry to the alpha male enclave of Silicon Valley as Vice President of Google, then hopscotched over to Facebook where she serves as Chief Operating Officer.
Like Betty at the beginning of Mad Men, she is attractive and stylish with a successful husband and two children. Plus a seat on the Board of Directors at Disney and Facebook. Plus an equity stake with stock valued at half a billion dollars.
Sheryl has it all. At a pretty daunting level, considering the broader context of what that uber-package of achievement entails. To help others, she has documented her path in a new playbook and social movement called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.
It’s creating ripples, to say the least.
Sheryl says women themselves are to blame for the gap in ambition and achievement. She lists the shortfalls and outlines a strategy for top-line growth. “Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women. Of full professors around the U.S., only 24% are women. Women became 50% of the college graduates in this country in 1981,but we are nowhere close to 50% of the jobs at the top.”
The fur started flying. Some criticized her elitist perch. Others say she can’t relate to a “regular” woman juggling work, children and aging parents in a struggling economy.
Women hurt themselves by “leaning back,” she points out. “They say, I’m busy or I want to have a child one day, I couldn’t possibly take on any more. Or I’m still learning on my current job. I’ve never had a man say that to me.”
To me, that’s the whole point. In today’s world, women now have an open-ended range of options. You can follow the path that suits you.
You can be a Martha Stewart-inspired domestic diva. A soccer mom. Or Yoga entrepreneur. You can be a single mom. A trophy wife. Community activist. Part of a two-career couple with no kids. A home office blogger. You can be a lawyer on the partner path. Then segue to the mommy track. Then back to partner. Then start your own boutique firm. You can be the most powerful person in your industry. You can re-invent the wheel. You can be CEO. The possibilities are endless.
Not everyone wants to climb the rigid structure of someone else’s ecosystem. That’s why there are more than 8.3 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., generating nearly $1.3 trillion in revenue, according to a study commissioned by American Express OPEN.
Why do women lean out instead of leaning in? In her Career Diva blog, Eve Tahmincioglu writes about the Company Man syndrome. She is right. The leadership positions by which Sheryl Sandberg and others define success are throwbacks to an organizational structure created in the era of Mad Men when there was a retinue of support on both the home and office front to bolster the careers of high-potentials destined for the C-suite. You need to replicate that team on an outsourced basis in order to succeed, as outlined in Lean In.
Smart enterprises are beginning to lean in to capitalize on the power of diversity. Chairman and Senior Partner of PwC Robert Moritz is designing an inclusive culture, he reports via LinkedIn. For example, Full Circle is a PwC program that allows parents to “off-ramp” from their careers, stay connected while they are gone, maintain their technical credentials, and then return to the firm. Formalizing this option gives people permission to pursue non-linear career paths. Mentor Moms is a PwC effort to match women returning from maternity leave with experienced mothers who are successfully juggling family and careers.
Jacki Zehner reports a disappointment at Goldman Sachs in this blogpost, due to a Queen Bee who did not want to help others lean in. We’re not at the right win/loss ratio. But I am heartened by the efforts and dialog.
Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan discerned the rumblings of unrest on the domestic front. In the beginning of her book, The Feminine Mystique, she described the problem that lay buried, unspoken, for many years:
“It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question. Is this all?“
Women of that era were hemmed in. Betty Draper was not maternal, but she had children because that’s what you did. You might have itched for something more, but when Betty delved into the truth of her existence, she discovered a deeper horror. Don Draper was a man of many secrets. He was a serial philanderer who had left behind his sad early life and reinvented himself by stealing the identity of a dead soldier.
Betty Draper had limited options for Plan B, thus she divorced dashing Don and married the more stable and sedate Henry Francis. Even Jackie Kennedy tapped the second marriage option to Aristotle Onassis before forging a fuller life of her own in publishing. Today, there would be more possibilities for revitalization and renewal. You could run for office. Write a book. Start a company. Host a TV show.
I love the range of choice. Like the tagline of the ad campaign used to introduce Virginia Slims, a cigarette designed and debuted for women in 1968, my view is that “We’ve come a long way, baby.” Compared to then. It’s not where Sheryl wants us to be. But it’s a pretty big step forward.
Nancy Keene is founder of The Perfect Fit, a blog and corporate leadership consultancy. She is a leading business consultant and work/life strategist with a unique perspective — combining ten years in the talent selection process with a career foundation launching new companies, products and technologies.
Nancy is a national speaker, workshop leader and widely quoted news source. She has been featured in national news outlets, including: The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, ABCNews.com, CNBC.com, The Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, Chicago Tribune and many others.
She serves on the Board of Advisors for Texas Women Ventures Fund. She is co-founder of The MBA Edge career launch program at TCU’s Neeley School of Business.