Creativity complicates women leaders Leaning In

Creativity complicates women leaders Leaning In

I admit that it took me years to get and read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and the only reason I did was because I read a book on women and negotiation called Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock.

For a long time I wondered what Ms. Sandberg could possibly know about the struggle of women in the workplace and the struggle for us to get opportunities and create our success. I felt like her perspective would start out from the elitist context of Harvard (and it did so I wasn’t disappointed).

But her perspective built on that in the book Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock which describes the reasons women
1. Don’t think things are negotiable and flexible
2. Don’t feel entitled to negotiate
3. Don’t set ambitious targets for negotiation outcomes
4. Aren’t comfortable asking
5. Settle too quickly during the negotiation process.

It’s not all negative for us gals though –we excel at advocating for others and at collaboration. We just need to “lean in” a little more. Sit at the table a little more. Expect a little more. Work through uncomfortableness a little more.

Leaning In gets complicated when creativity and innovation are involved. The problem is that women already have a harder time working and getting ahead in corporate America. We have more a difficult time getting our voices heard, advocating for ourselves, asking for and receiving promotions, and getting challenging growth jobs. Accomplishing these things would simply present us with the baseline status quo. When you add innovation to the mix, which is a novel solution to  problem, the creative work contradicts  business-as-usual and adds complexity and risk  (see the Top Five Risks of Creativity).


A man becomes established as an expert in his field more easily than a woman, and his opinion is trusted more after he is established. For many women, however, it takes more time, effort or education to become established  (if it’s possible) and a woman’s credibility is continuously called into question. She must constantly re-establish herself as an expert. Then, just as a woman fights to finally get heard and create respect for her expertise, up pops an innovative idea that gives gender bias the spark to call into question her credentials. What happens is that she ends up spending more time re-establishing herself and getting buy-in for the idea from others than a male counterpart whose expertise is established and unquestioned.

Maybe this doesn’t happen all the time but it happens.

For example, a friend of mine in Silicon Valley is a VP at a tech company. The company she works for is a consumer-centric software company (vs. enterprise-centric) for a special industry where customer data is not shared because of security and liability. But in order to be make truly consumer-centric software soltions the data needs to be shared.  There are ways to share the data but it would create policy innovation within the industry that my friend wants her company to led. However, policy innovation is not the prevailing view of the CEO who believes only in technological innovation. In truth, policy innovation would drive technological innovation on the back end and has the potential to position the company very well. After sharing her perspective for years, and having to defend her perspective over and over, her credibility was shredded and she was removed from her VP of product platform role and given a different VP role without clear objectives or specific performance goals (she was “moved to the roof” as the characters on Silicon Valley would say). During this time period, the number of female VPs went down from 8 out of 14, or 57%, to 4 out of 14, or 28%. Men were hired to fill openings in the VP suite. There could be a variety of reasons my friend was moved out of her position but that’s what makes gender bias so subtle and why it still exists.


How creative can working women be when we spend so much time and energy merely to get our roles let alone further any innovative ideas we get once we are there?



Image “leaning tree” by Dhiyaa from Flickr used under CC 2.0.


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