On September 30th the Wall Street Journal had a separate ten-page section entirely devoted to “Women in the Workplace.” It drew heavily on the findings of a “major new study of women in the workplace that was conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co.“ The study, in other words, had the imprimatur of some of the best brands in business – Sheryl Sandberg and McKinsey.
The subject of motherhood came up in the section – but only episodically and tangentially. Moreover the idea that gender differences – say, pregnancy and lactation – might have some bearing on the fact that “a majority of women say they would rather not grab the brass ring” was not even considered. Interestingly, according to the study, women do want promotions. Being a mother seems to “increase their appetite for winning promotions.” But, when it comes to the top job, to exercising leadership in a big way, women demur significantly more often than men. (Only 43% of women said they want to be a top executive, compared to 54% of men.)
The question of course is why. In a piece with her byline, Sandberg responded to the question in three ways. First, she wrote, the drop-off of women in senior ranks is because “they face more barriers to advancement.” Second, she argued, it is because “women are twice as likely to believe their gender will make it harder to advance.” And third Sandberg conjectured it is because of stress. The “leadership ambition gap” is because the path to senior positions “is disproportionately stressful for women.”
Sandberg and others are careful to point out that the research does not suggest that women with children are notably less interested in taking on leadership roles than women without. What they do not do is to tell us the reason for this: that in the most fundamental ways all women are alike, whether or not they have a child. This continuing refusal – or is it denial? – to admit into the gender discourse genetic differences continues a crying shame.