Women, Success, and Corporate Culture: Are These the Values We Want?


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, is probably right.

What it takes to be successful in a U.S. company and what we define as success in America requires the kind of singular focus on developing leadership skills and a strong power base that Sandberg discusses in her book. These are the hard facts of corporate America, but does that mean corporate America has it right?

What intrigues me as a sociologist, having observed corporate culture around the world, is the extent to which in the United States, identity, and success are anchored almost exclusively in career. There are different values in other countries that often rank higher in productivity and quality of life than the United States—including Germany, France, and most especially, Sweden.

I have had the opportunity to do a great deal of research while teaching at the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden. What I have observed is that workplace norms are quite different, whether one is in a corporate context such as Ericsson, a financial institution such as Handelsbanken, or in retail such as H&M; settings I have observed in my work. The Swedes place a higher value on children and families, and companies reflect this in important ways—in leave time, adjustable hours, more vacation days, and substantial public investments in neighborhood daycare.

Over the past few decades, executive-level compensation and perks have grown at extraordinary rates in the United States compared to countries like Sweden and Germany. There is an enormous gap between middle management and executives in this country. This is in part because culturally, how much you earn and/or control is a higher cultural priority in the United States, while how well you live, including how much time you have with your family is a higher priority in other countries.

We in the United States equate a successful life with large compensation packages and span of control at work. We judge commitments to career by long hours and dedication to the workplace above all else.

What I think we should be discussing today, is not whether women have to change how they behave in order to be successful in American companies—as Sandberg is recommending—but rather, is it good for American society to place so much emphasis on success and power in the work place? A democracy depends on citizen engagement in community life, as well as parental and community involvement in the care and development of children, as well as the elderly.

The question Sandberg’s book raises for me is this: Can we as a Democratic society continue to put so much emphasis on careers and earnings?

Rather than debating whether Sandberg is right or wrong in terms of encouraging women to play the game the way men do (because of the cultural values that currently dominate organizational life) we should be asking, “Are these the values we want to live by?” If the rules of the game continue to be what they are today in America, women need to “Lean In,” and Sandberg is right. However, if we as a society determine that not only the workplace but communities and families require time, leadership, and expertise, she is absolutely wrong.

Mary Lindenstein Walshok is co-author with Abraham J. Shragge of "Invention & Re-Invention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy." She serves as UC San Diego’s associate vice chancellor of public programs, dean of UC San Diego Extension and is an adjunct professor of sociology. Follow @

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