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

3/18/13

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 Walshok is associate vice chancellor for public programs and dean of Extension at the University of California San Diego. She has studied and written extensively about the key ingredients needed to build knowledge-based clusters and high-wage jobs, and she is a co-founder of Connect, the San Diego nonprofit organization for innovation and entrepreneurship. Follow @

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  • Caroline Carr

    My experience in Europe confirms what Mary has found, and in this way many European countries continue to lead the pack for work/life balance and recognize the dual role of women in the workplace. I believe America should aspire to this. However, America has always pushed in the direction of more is bigger and better: more hours, more power, more pay. To change that culture is a huge undertaking and one that will take years to achieve. In the meantime, women still have the advantage of choice but either decision will require planning, dedication, and commitment. It will not happen out of entitlement.

  • Aarthy Vallur

    Quite true. Here is another very realistic take on what women really want and hog do not want to work unreasonable hours if that is what career success means
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324678604578342641640982224.html

  • Caitlin Bigelow

    This makes total sense but, as a working young woman I feel that we can’t just sit around and wait for corporate America to become more flexible and family oriented and then jump in at our shot at success. In fact, might it be the case that if more women were the heads of big companies that there would be more empathy to the working mother and flexible schedules-not less? Just a thought.

  • http://twitter.com/pharmaconnect Pharma Connections

    Very strong opinions. Probably not wise to have gender issue opinions/debates mixed in with corporate news and other serious content though. Opens a can of worms most people are going to cringe at, including women. Corporations are run by profits and dominant positions competitive landscapes, those generally considered male traits by nature. Suggesting that corporations need to adapt to some other line of thinking, as opposed to the rational argument that women willingly joined the ranks of male dominated professions and had to adapt themselves seems quite a foreign ideology, since this has been tried and failed before. European culture is not American culture and modeling this society after Sweden would be the last thing on the list to attempt. It would have been a better piece if the author focused on productivity ranges in different cultures, and less on another social gender issue, which generally turns off readers. This idea that corporations need to ‘empathize’ with working mothers is nonsense. It has been shown time and time again that many women take off maternity leave and/or never come back. This harms corporate productivity and that’s a bottom line issue. It suggests that by the same token, a military should have more empathy and lessen the harshness of battle simply because some women chose to join the ranks. At some point logic has to dominate. Which is why an opinion piece like this really has no basis for rational argument, its simply opinion. An interesting one that has been shot down all too often. Markets are competitive and don’t leave a lot of room for toddler’s daycare issues.

    • LCP

      An interesting post. First, you try to shut down the discussion, saying that it may make some people uncomfortable. Then, you speak at length to promote your own theory. Whether you know it or not, your arguments are predicated on Social Darwinism. And while there certainly is a grain of truth in Social Darwinism, we have the horrors of the 20th century to remind us of where your type of thinking leads.

      Nevertheless, I agree with you to some extent. Warfare is a passable metaphor for business. So let’s ask, who wants to live in a world that is characterized by only warfare? What is the human cost of relentless war? Is relentless warfare economically sustainable? If the business world is a battlefield (as opposed to a chess board), who does it serve?

      Having asked these questions about business as warfare, we must also remember that war is only a metaphor business. And while war is brutal by nature, business does not have to be. In fact, businesses that continue to ignore the “triple bottom line” are sowing the seeds of their and our own eventual destruction.

  • Ellen Kappes

    In general,
    European companies more often integrate sustainable business principles into
    their business models where they consider the triple bottom line (planet,
    people and profits) instead of solely the bottom line. As a result, they
    understand that valuing employees, families, and the communities in which they
    operate translates into a strategic advantage. These are the companies that
    will prosper over the long haul. American culture and business too often focus
    on the short term, the next quarter’s results, and the next fire to put out.
    This is why so many people burn out or simply hate their work – the one thing
    to which they devote most of their time……if you think of this holistically,
    it is a business issue.