A Seat at the Table


Women in executive leadership is suddenly a popular topic. About a month ago, I heard a TED Talk by Sheryl Sanberg, the COO of Facebook, who highlighted the absence of women in political, corporate, and non-profit leadership. Some of Sanberg’s, experiences led her to a threefold-recommendation for women; if women want to be executive leaders, then they must: “sit at the table, not leave before leaving, and make their partner a real partner.” Sanberg explained these recommendations by calling attention to women sitting along the peripheral in c -suite or c-level meetings (pertains to workspace or boardrooms of those with chief ranking; CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, CTO) and declining promotions for motherhood or maternity leave.

Then on December 5, 2013, I attended the Mass Conference for Women where woman leaders revisited this topic of executive leadership and women, once more. Women hold roughly 18% of American general leadership positions. Cathie Black, Former President and Chairman of Hearst magazines referenced Sanberg’s talk, while also adding some additional recommendations of her own. Black candidly suggested that women not cry at work and abandon the need or wish to be liked; she insisted that women be assertive, be a participant–not a bystander, and be a negotiator who self-advocates. Like Sanberg, Black also highlighted how men in c-level leadership display leadership, by commenting that men are not caring and not crying at work. Unlike Black and Sanberg, writer, activist, and producer Amy Richards thoughts were that women should think more broadly about their careers; emphasized that women are far too dependent on archaic standards of success, and are misled by an attitude of perfection. Richards encouraged women to be okay with being good and remarked, that “society should change to fit us.”

Most of what has been said about women and leadership makes a lot of sense in terms of being an efficient leader, but does not appear as practical solutions to the fundamental issue. Women should be ok with good, but think extensively about their jobs. Leaving the question of how far will good get you. Sanberg and Black both described the seat at the table as essential to a women’s position, because the belief is that where a woman positions herself dictates how she is treated by her male counterparts. It would seem that from where Sanberg and Black stand, the problem is inherent to some women is something that some women are not doing. I, however, see the issue as much larger than this and external to women. Sanberg and Black suggest we as women change ourselves although this only exacerbates present problems while creating new problems where problems did not previously exist. Aside from the fact that many of their suggestions give wind and feet to stereotypes like crying as mentioned by Black; which is not an issue unless it hinders an ability to lead. In Sanberg’s experience women chose not to sit at the table, but I can’t imagine there would be room at the table. Men are likely so accustom to so few or no women in c-level boardrooms that by the time a women arrives there could perhaps be unofficially assigned seating.

With a meager 3% of women granted admission to sit at the table in c-suite, to begin with, it would be no surprise, if women felt like outliers. In statistics, an outlier is defined as “an observation point that is distant from other observations. An outlier maybe due to variability in the measurement or it may indicate experimental error; the latter sometimes excluded from the data set.” So in spite of the Ivy League educations, or sophisticated degrees, which permitted board room passage in the first place, some of those women in outlier seats perhaps have outlier feelings. This is understood, yet women are too often instructed to change ourselves when the issue is not being more like men or less like women.

The issue is that in this country, women are allotted equal freedom, but inadequate opportunity. The issue of women being excluded in executive level leadership is not just an issue in the U.S. but a world issue. German government has passed legislation known as the women’s quota mandating, that by 2016, Germany’s largest companies increase the number of women on executive leadership boards by a minimum of 30%. The difference in regards to this issue is while some countries elect to ignore this issue some countries recognize the disparity and are making real efforts to address it systemically and politically. Society does not need to change to fit us, but rather change to include us equally in all dimensions of life and opportunity. It is society who has lessened the believed-potential of women and it is society who must allow more room for women to sit at the table and believably operate at their fullest potential. The question is: Is society committed to do what is necessary to truly promote equality?


Joy Henry

Joy Henry graduated from Hampton University in 2008, with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Public Relations. At Hampton University, Joy was a member of the Student Union Board, an evening radio personality on WHOV 88.1 for the Talk, and a Marketing Co-Captain for Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications’ Caldwell CafĂ©. Joy returned to Boston to pursue her MSW in Social Work. Joy entered Wheelock College as a MSW candidate in September of 2011. As part of the MSW program, Joy has completed two field placements. First, as graduate facilitator of Wheelock College Student Policy Fellows Program where she simultaneously interned in the office of Representative Cleon Turner and Aide Elysse Magnotto; and second, as clinical intern in Riverside’s Life Skills Program facilitating group therapy with adolescents. Joy is planning to graduate in May of 2014.

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