Why leaning in – even at Facebook – won’t change anything

I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Sheryl Sandberg right now. The abysmal diversity figures recently published by Facebook’s Global Head of Diversity on her Facebook blog together with multiple sexual harassment and discrimination cases filed against a number of Silicon Valley companies are making her advice to other women to Lean In seem – well – irrelevant.

Like the rest of the tech industry, Facebook is a gender-segregated company: 85% of all tech employees are men; 77% of all Facebook’s senior level employees are men; and only 31% of all 6,500 of Facebook’s employees are women. On the other hand, 47% of all non-tech employees at Facebook are women. Other major Internet companies – including Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Intel, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard – have released similar data. With near parity in the non-tech areas of the business, isn’t it a bit odd that we don’t see more women in senior management in these companies?

The data, lawsuits, and news stories make it pretty clear that women will not get ahead in the tech industry just by leaning in. The men who make up the majority in those companies have to lend them a hand – instead of pushing back.

To be fair, Facebook and other Internet companies have recognized that there’s plenty of room for improvement and have adopted a number of initiatives to improve those numbers. Facebook’s Global Head of Diversity, Maxine Williams, listed some of those initiatives in her blog post. FB launched a “strategic diversity team” last year and is “implementing a variety of programs and strategies to help increase the overall pool of talent from underrepresented communities” and will be providing training in “unconscious bias” to FB employees. Other companies, like LinkedIn, Intel, Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, have implemented similar programs.

The focus on increasing the overall pool of talent seems to indicate that the industry regards the lack of diversity as primarily a pipeline problem.

I do not deny that there is a pipeline problem. Statistics on the website of Girls Who Code, one of several NGOs with which FB is partnering, certainly support that picture: 74% of girls in the U.S. express interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), but when choosing a college major, just 0.3% of high school girls select computer science. What’s worse, though, is that instead of growing, the pipeline has shrunk substantially since the mid 1980s. According to Girls Who Code, women represented 37% of all computer science graduates in 1984. Today it’s just 12%. Perhaps that explains why only 15% of Facebook’s tech employees are female, but it doesn’t explain why men hold approximately 75% of upper management positions in the tech industry.

Expertise in computer programming is not something everyone in the C-suite has to have. I’d venture a wager that there’s some leadership potential among the women who make up 47% of the non-tech employees. If Facebook and other tech companies are serious about addressing the gender gap in management, they need to do far more than support teaching girls to code and learn about unconscious bias. They need to be looking at the way they manage their business – including the way they understand strategy-making, innovation, and leadership – to make sure they have not fallen into the mental and managerial habits that erect barriers in the path of ambitious women. The seven principles Johan Roos and I present in our book can help them do that.

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