Only 18% of executive officers in the finance and insurance industries are female, and only 12% in real estate, rental and leasing.
Only 18% of executive officers in the finance and insurance industries are female, and only 12% in real estate, rental and leasing.

A blueprint for action for women at work?

Creating gender diversity in the workplace is a problem that is resistant to simple solutions.

Stephanie Strickland

Stephanie Strickland

Stephanie Strickland is R&D Manager for the Association of Business Schools and associate adviser for the Foundation’s diversity activity Women in Leasing. Stephanie holds an MSc in Gender and International Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is one of the editors of LSE’s Engenderings, which brings together social and political science, media studies, philosophy, environmental studies and technology to explore gender in culture, politics, business and society.
Stephanie Strickland

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 Introduction from Executive Producer JO DAVIS
Creating gender diversity in the workplace is a problem that is resistant to simple solutions. It is rooted in organisational culture and practice, social perception, structural and economic factors and individual beliefs, often those of women themselves. Despite a weight of evidence that there is a problem, and despite many approaches  to creating a solution,  tangible progress is the exception not the rule. The Leasing Foundation is committed to supporting change in the diversity landscape and this review of a recent influential booked called Lean in, focuses on some of the issues we are confronting.

Who should be interested in this?
Diversity professionals, human resources specialists and leaders of organisations committed to action on diversity.


A blueprint for action for women at work? 

  • In the US, women earn 60% of master’s degrees and 57% of undergraduate degrees.
  • 41% of mothers are primary breadwinners.
  • In Europe, 82% of women aged 20-14 completed upper secondary education compared to 77% of men.
  • Of the 195 independent countries in the world, women lead only 17.
  • Globally, women hold only 20% of seats in parliament.
  • In the US, women hold only 15% of executive officer positions – a figure that hasn’t changed for a decade.
  • “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” US retailer JCPenney’s t-shirt (now discontinued) sold to girls aged 7-16.

Co-authored by Peter Thomas.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Forbes 5th most powerful woman in the world 2011 and mother of two, is now the author of a book that has caused controversy. In Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in which  Sandberg deconstructs her career and sets out her vision for women, work and equality.

As part of the Leasing Foundation’s Women in Leasing, we have been talking a lot about effective, practical and sustainable diversity initiatives.  Sandberg’s “blueprint for action” for women is hugely relevant to these conversations.  Sheryl Sandberg is visible, successful and influential – not only in her own company and the tech industry, but amongst executives and policymakers in the US and worldwide. Her views should be taken seriously.

There are several ways to read Lean In: as a memoir, a self-help book, a career management manual or  – some people think – a feminist manifesto. Women who want to emulate Sandberg’s success can use Lean In as a tactical manual, but the book also identifies and analyses the barriers that prevent change to help corporate decision-makers negotiate those barriers in pursuit of an evolution towards a more diverse workplace.

Lean In is primarily a reaction against the dismal state of diversity in businesses – especially at a senior level.  The opening of the book is full of carefully-researched statistics including: “a meagre 4 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women”; “women hold about 7 percent of executive directorships among the FTSE 500 companies”; and “in Europe, women are paid an average of 84 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts”.

The statistics are a powerful illustration of the state of diversity in many businesses. In the case of asset finance and leasing industry the situation is broadly the same: only 18% of executive officers in the finance and insurance industries are female, and only 12% in real estate, rental and leasing.

The reason why this is important, says Sandberg, is that even though we have supposed equality of opportunity, this doesn’t lead to equality of outcomes: somewhere there are barriers that are preventing women from rising. These can be personal (what Sandberg calls women’s tendency to “lean back”), socio-cultural (the perception of what ‘appropriate’ female roles are), or structural (a lack of support, or an unaccommodating corporate culture, for working women with families).

One of the reasons the book has caused such controversy is that it can be seen as, in Sandberg’s own words, “a sort of feminist manifesto”.

But if the book is a feminist manifesto it is a very different one than we are used to. It talks about the issues faced by women in a way that resonates with women (and men) who would not call themselves ‘feminists’. The Guardian published an article documenting the views of 27 women at different stages of their technology and media related careers.  “I spent last weekend… lying on the sofa chanting and shouting passages from the book”, said one reader.

Feminist manifesto or not it probably doesn’t matter, because the effect of a woman with Sandberg’s visibility and influence addressing the gender gap is to breathe new life into the discussion.

And it’s a discussion that needs it. Despite recent drives to increase the proportion of female board members the momentum has slipped away. Cranfield’s International Centre for Women Leaders recently released their 2013 Female FTSE Board Report that suggests a stall in the executive pipeline: over the last six months, executive appointments going to women decreased from 44% to 22%.

But are Sandberg’s instructions in Lean in (“sit at the table”, “own your success”, “don’t leave before you leave”, “make your partner a real partner”) going to solve the problem? Is Lean In, as her critics suggest, just a memoir of a fascinating, hypersucessful professional career (“This is not a book about how women can become more equal: this is a book about how women can become more like Sheryl Sandberg” says a Guardian review) or a powerful, game-changing, restatement of the gender diversity crisis that will catalyse action?

There are some practical takeouts from Lean In for the Leasing Foundation’s Women in Leasing initiative. These include:

  • Encouraging professional and personal support networks for women’s career progression: the Foundation is leveraging its women Governors and Fellows to build networks for women in leasing and asset finance to provide the kind of support from successful leaders of both sexes that raise women’s aspirations and identify pathways to move their careers forward.
  • Increasing awareness amongst leaders, and then enabling them to reset pervasive organisational gender biases: the Foundation is consulting on the development of a Gender Diversity Scorecard that will help support leaders in creating an environment that attracts, retains and develops female talent. The scorecard will generate data across the industry that reveals best practice and diagnoses damaging trends.
  • Supporting, and making visible, a wide range of initiatives: a recent McKinsey Women Matter report notes that while gender diversity need to have the support of CEOs, there also needs to be a critical mass of initiatives that are driven and monitored – in our case, we will identify and support them across the entire industry.

The strengths of Lean In may not lie in Sandberg’s ability to provide solutions for ‘all women’, or in her encouragement to women to ‘play up’ to feminine ideals while negotiating (“keep smiling”), but in the authenticity of her contribution, the extent of her research and the scale at which she has started the conversation.

Her contribution is to present us with an accessible, understandable and much needed account of what many have been trying to deny – that there is something to challenge.


A version of this article first appeared in Leasing World. 

CC BY 4.0 A blueprint for action for women at work? by Stephanie Strickland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.