Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says that women of her generation "blew it" and that hope for real female equality lies in the current generation of college graduates.
In the keynote commencement address at Barnard College, Sandberg pointed out that the proportion of female college graduates reached 50% in 1981 and that 30 years later, women still inhabit a comparatively tiny percentage of business and government leadership positions. She says that this is Bad and the result of ladies around her age not having big enough dreams. As a result of their puny, insufficient dreaming, women the world over are suffering.
I truly believe that only when we get real equality in our governments, in our businesses, in our companies and our universities, will we start to solve this generation's central moral problem, which is gender equality. We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women's voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.
While she's right that in order to achieve equality, women need to be in positions to make decisions, it's a bit of a Catch-22. If women aren't able to make decisions because there aren't enough women in positions of leadership to make decisions, then how are women supposed to enter a seemingly unenterable cycle? Because they don't want to!
Sandberg also said,
The first thing is I encourage you to think big. Studies show very clearly that in our country, in the college-educated part of the population, men are more ambitious than women. They're more ambitious the day they graduate from college; they remain more ambitious every step along their career path. We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap. But if all young women start to lean in, we can close the ambition gap right here, right now, if every single one of you leans in. Leadership belongs to those who take it.
I find it hard to believe that women aren't dreaming big enough or trying hard enough; it's hard to advance through a system that's set up to force women to make difficult decisions in order to advance beyond a certain level, especially if women choose to have a family. The way that this country treats parents (and especially mothers) is, to be frank, shitty. Motherhood is both socially expected and professionally punished. If you're a young, childless women, companies see you as a "risky hire" liable to spontaneously self-inseminate at any moment; if and when you do choose to have a child, it's assumed that the lion's share of babycare duties will fall on your shoulders. Flexible work options for mothers with school-aged children are laughably insufficient and many women must eventually choose between devoting time to ascending the corporate ladder or attending to their families in a way that feels sufficient to them.
It's easy to "think big" when you've never had to choose between attending your kid's soccer game and staying late at work to impress your boss. It's easy to "dream for the stars!!!" or whatever when you've never had to watch half a dozen less-qualified men be promoted over you for reasons that are never explained to you. And it's easy to tell women that success is achievable for every woman from the perspective of one woman who has achieved success.
After telling graduates that their not choosing to funnel all of their ambition into the professional arena, she backtracks,
I have deep respect for my friends who make different choices than I do, who choose the really hard job of raising children full time, who choose to go part time, or who choose to pursue more nontraditional goals. These are choices that you may make some day, and these are fine choices.
So does this mean that she knows that those women who made different choices than she did "blew it," but that she totally respects them anyway? It's okay, sweetie, that you did not shoot for the stars with a high enough caliber success gun, I totally respect you, but you're screwing everything up for women all over the world!
Perhaps the words that Sandberg is looking for isn't that men are "more ambitious," but that women are "pragmatic" and "aware of the social barriers that await them and feel daunted." Or, perhaps women of her generation tried, saw a stubborn glass ceiling still firmly overhead, and said "fuck it."