Erica Pinsky



 available as a PODCAST

The Elephant in the Room


In 1998 I quit my corporate job to start the Respect Business.  When people asked me why I made that choice my standard response was:

I want to see change in my lifetime.


Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of the bestselling book Lean In, shares that interest.  She is working to challenge the status quo with respect to gender inequality.  Like many of us, women and men alike, she envisages a world where women can live life on their own terms.


A pivotal point in her journey occurred in 2010 when she was asked to speak at TED Women on the topic of women and leadership.  She arrived in Washington prepared to deliver a well-researched, unemotional speech “chock full of facts and figures.”


As she stood backstage Pat Mitchell, CEO of the Paley Centre for Media and co-producer of the conference, asked how she was feeling.


Rather than make a choice many of us do and say ‘oh fine,’ Ms. Sandberg disclosed that she was having a hard day.  Her 3 year old daughter had been clinging to her leg crying Mommy don’t go, when she had dropped her off at daycare before heading to the airport.  She was wracked with guilt.


This is an experience all too common for scores of working Mothers.  Many days I would tear myself away as the child care workers took my screaming daughter out of my arms.  The first thing I would do upon arrival at my office would be to call the daycare to see if my daughter had stopped crying.


“You have to share that story.” Ms. Mitchell advised.


Ms. Sandberg was stunned.  “Are you kidding?” she replied “On the TED stage?”


“Yes” said Ms. Mitchell.  “If you’re going to talk about women and leadership you have to be honest about how hard it is.”


If you’ve seen that now famous TED talk, you know that Ms. Sandberg decided to be honest about how hard it is.  She shared that story about her daughter with her audience.  In a recent interview with Ms. Mitchell she said the realization that she had to be more open and honest and share her experiences was critical for her.  Finding her voice allowed her to empower and encourage others to find their voices.


As Emily Bennington writes in “Who Says It’s a Man’s World


”Your voice is a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.”


Prior to that TEDWomen talk Ms. Sandberg had been very reluctant to speak about women and leadership.  An unspoken rule she quickly learned as she climbed the corporate ladder was “Never talk about being a woman because someone might notice that you are a women.  Talking about being a woman would cause people on the other end of the table to assume you’re about to ask for special treatment, or complain or worse: that you’re about to sue them.”


A newly graduated Harvard MBA, Ms. Sandberg entered the corporate world believing, like so many of us, that equality was “ours for the taking.”  While she saw women and men at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder and only men at the top, she really believed that things would change.  Instead her experience was that as she climbed the corporate ladder she became one of fewer and fewer women in the room, and then often the only one; despite the fact that women are over 50% of the population and earn the majority of both undergraduate and graduate degrees.  She realized that equality was not “ours for the taking” and she wanted to talk about that.


Her colleagues and friends advised against it.

“Don’t do it.”

“You will end your business career.”

“You cannot be a serious business executive and speak about being a woman.”

 “You will never be taken seriously again.”



Then she thought about something Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg routinely asks his team:

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?


The answer for Ms. Sandberg was finding her voice and speaking her truth on the TED stage in 2010, releasing her bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in 2013, starting the Lean In foundation and in 2014, identifying herself as a feminist.


Feminist: a truly five alarm word.

Conjures up visions of man hating, bra burning, aggressive, disgruntled, unhappy women.


It was a term that Ms. Sandberg admits she shied away from until recently.  What changed her mind about the importance of embracing that term has been her realization that the problem of women and leadership is much more global than she had originally thought.  The solution is going to require more than women making the choice to Lean In.  It requires men and women to come together and talk about gender inequality and the reality of systemic discrimination.


The challenge is how to get that conversation started.  Not many of us spring out of bed in the morning eagerly anticipating a conversation about an emotionally charged and sensitive subject like gender equality with a bunch of “feminists.”


I have a couple of ideas about what might motivate us to want to engage in this discourse.


If you’re in business, how about the overwhelming evidence that that gender equality will boost your  bottom line?  Study after study has established that companies with more women at senior corporate officer level outperform those with fewer women by as much as 36%.  New research from UBC   shows the cost of a successful acquisition is reduced by 15.4 per cent with each female director added on a board.


If you’re not all that concerned with the bottom line, how about the fact that gender equality is good for families and communities?  Whether you’re a man or a woman, your relationship with your spouse will improve.  Research shows that couples that share work and home responsibilities equally have a 50% lower divorce rate.  They also spend more intimate time together (if you get my drift).


It is always helpful, and I would argue, respectful, to be informed about an issue before diving in and offering our wisdom.  If you’re not quite ready to start talking, here are some issues you might want to get curious about.


Get curious about the facts

I have been talking and writing about women, position and power for a number of years.  My experience is that many of us, men and women alike, aren’t sure why we need to talk about gender, believing as did Ms. Sandberg, that it’s an issue that has been resolved.


The facts confirm that gender equity is an issue that is far from resolved. The percentage of women in C-suite positions and on corporate boards in both Canada and the US, hit a high of 15 – 16%, 20% in the non-profit sector,  and has been declining over the last several years. Research released in 2014 shows that women currently hold 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.6 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.


The facts are that if a woman and man work full time outside the home, the woman does twice the amount of housework that the man does and 3 times the amount of childcare.


The wage gap between men and women has not moved since 2002.  In the US women still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, despite the fact that, as I have already noted above, women earn a majority of university degrees. The gap increases if you are a woman of colour:  64 cents if you are African American, 54 cents if you are Latino.


Canadian data mirrors that of the US.  Women aged 25 to 34 earned 78.3 cents for each dollar received by their male counterparts in 2010.  Among women aged 45 to 54, the ratio amounted to 75.7 cents.  Gender differences in earnings vary by occupation, with the largest income gap in health occupations, where women earned just 47 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2010.


Get curious about assumptions and stereotypes

As I often share with my audiences, power based disrespectful behaviours like discrimination; harassment and bullying are embedded in human history.  Discrimination is a result of assumptions and beliefs that are deeply ingrained in our culture and our psyche, so deeply ingrained that we often fail to either recognize or  question them.


Since the release of Lean In, Ms. Sandberg has travelled the globe talking to men and women in a myriad of countries.  Her experience has been that the one common cultural norm these vastly different cultures shared related to gender.  “All over the world we think men should be strong, assertive, aggressive, and have a voice while women should speak when spoken to and help others.  There is a word for bossy that applies to little girls in every language in the world.  It is a word that is not used for little boys because if a little boy leads there is no negative word for it.  It is expected.  If a little girl leads, she is bossy.”


Ms. Sandberg cited the exhaustive research she has conducted.  The data confirms that stereotypes are holding women back from leadership positions all over the world.


Systemic discrimination occurs when we judge women (or any identifiable group) through a different lens.  The research clearly establishes that this different lens negatively impacts women who aspire to leadership positions.  Many of the character traits identified as those that leaders should use to get results are ones that we label being a “boss” when displayed by a man.  When a woman exhibits those same character traits we label her as “bossy.”  Research shows that while less than 5% of men have been told they are too aggressive at work, women, particularly those in leadership positions, are routinely told they are too aggressive.


Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.


Curiosity informs us. Awareness empowers us.  Cisco CEO John Chambers got curious and decided to read Lean In. After reading the book he invited Ms. Sandberg to speak at Cisco and he joined her on stage.  He had read Lean In, he told his employees, and acknowledged that all of their senior women had, at one point, been labelled as too aggressive.  The reason for his disclosure, according to Ms. Sandberg, was because that realization on his part, and public acknowledgment of it, would benefit not just the senior women, but his entire company.


Get curious about who “Leans In”

In her recent interview Ms. Sandberg shares a story about an attending physician at John Hopkins who contacted her after he viewed her 2010 TEDWomen talk.  He told her it was only after hearing her that it occurred to him that even though half of his medical school students were women they were not speaking as much as the men.  He began noticing that when he asked questions the men raised their hands far more often than the women.


He decided to start encouraging the female students to speak up, but found that didn’t work.  Curious as to what the reason might be, and wondering if the reason for the silence was that they didn’t know the answers, he told his students that going forward he would be calling on them individually rather than asking them to raise their hands.  He quickly discovered that the women were able to respond to his questions as well as, and in some cases better than, their male colleagues.


Ms. Sandberg shares another story about the Governor of a US state, who told her that after reading Lean In, he noticed how, just as she describes in her book, women were not sitting at the table.  He instituted a new rule that required everyone invited to a meeting to sit at the table.


Get curious about your voice

I have been a working Mother for almost 18 years; a single working Mother for almost 12.  Most of my friends are working Mothers; some are entrepreneurs, some in leadership positions.  We all know how hard it is.


What I notice though, is that our go to response when we ask each other how it’s going, is something like “Oh fine, good, really busy, but fine.”  Many of us believe, as Ms. Sandberg did, that to be successful we have to focus on facts and figures, and leave the fact that we are a woman and the emotion, including honesty about how hard it is, out of the conversation.


How is that belief serving us, our workplaces, our families and our communities?


Does our silence create change or support the status quo?


According to Ms. Sandberg “Everywhere in the world women need more self-confidence because everywhere in the world women are told they are not equal to men.”


While I might agree that many women could use more self-confidence my belief is that men and women are different but equal.  I proudly identify as a feminist.  I believe we will all benefit when there are more women in leadership positions. I see it as my responsibility to use my voice to ignite conversations that will promote respect and meaningful equality for all human beings throughout the world community.


What about you?

Whatever your gender, will you add your voice to the conversation?

Will you choose to speak up for equality and respect?

Pinsky’s writing style makes this book an easy read for managers, decision-makers, human resource professionals and business owners and anyone else interested in building a respectful workplace. She provides tangible advice interwoven with the stories of real organizations who demonstrate on a daily basis the value of promoting a respectful workplace. Pinsky ensures that readers can glean from the book information they need to take action. A respectful  workplace culture is a road “paved” over time with trust and support; and Pinsky’s book provides the tools you need to arrive at your destination.

Catherine M. Mattice
President, Civility Partners, LLC & SME on Workplace Bullying