Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s new book about women and work, “Lean In,” hasn’t even been released yet, but it’s already making a big splash
The thesis of the book is essentially this: Women don’t occupy as many executive positions as they could because they hold themselves back. They prefer to be liked rather than powerful.
“As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women,” Sandberg told NPR
. "But I want to be clear: I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That's not the problem. The problem is that women aren't self-confident enough."
asked women who hold executive positions at PR and communications firms whether they think Sandberg’s assertions are well-founded.
Are PR and communications different?
In the world of big business, women certainly are a minority when it comes to leadership positions. In November, a mere 21 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were women
However, what’s true of the Fortune 500 isn’t true of all business. Though women are still paid less than men in PR, they also dominate the field. Anywhere from 73 to 85 percent of PR professionals are women
, surveys show. Top management is about 20 percent female
. That isn’t close to parity, but it’s certainly far beyond the norm—about 4 percent—in big business.
Jennifer Gehrt, partner at Communique PR, says that may be the result of PR and communications requiring different, more public skills than typical boardroom dealing. In PR, being liked is the business. After all, firms retain clients because those clients like them.
“That skillset works really, really well in business development and the agency world,” she says. “There is a chemistry factor.”
Christine Pietryla, vice president of public relations at Walker Sands Communications, says she still sees some barriers for women in the communications and PR fields, however.
“It's at the management or leadership level that you begin to see the stereotypes creep in,” she says. “I think it is largely because men and women have very different styles of communication. Young women in leadership being coached by a man are not getting full support for their individual differences. “
The field needs more female mentors for young, ambitious women, she says.
Women take on lots of roles, including daughter, mother, wife, friend, employee, and boss, points out Heather Whaling, president of Geben Communication.
“It's impossible to excel at everything, which is why people, women especially, often feel like they can't have it all,” she says.
At the same time, Jennifer Gehrt notes, women are told to downplay their successes.
“Sometimes people are conditioned to not want to be perceived as too successful,” she says. “You don’t want to eclipse other people.”
Gehrt says she’s felt embarrassment about touting her firm’s victories because it felt like bragging.
However, Christina Pietryla says she doesn’t see a lack of confidence as what’s holding women back, particularly when it comes to younger women in the field.
“The confidence I feel from the young people in my office is infectious,” she says.
So what’s the explanation? Pietryla once again points to training and standards. What’s effective for male leaders won’t necessarily work for a woman in charge.
“When women are tested against the current ideals, they appear to fall short or [to be] too harsh,” she says. “In other fields, particularly those with more men at the top, this weakness becomes even more striking. Of course a woman taking direction from a man is going to err on the side of doing things like him, which is where people get uncomfortable.”
A leader’s role
Gehrt says much of the criticism focused toward Sandberg
—that the author, as a billionaire, has far more resources than most working women—“sort of misses the point.” The point, she says, is about the burden of leadership, which requires making tough decisions, sometimes with limited information at hand.
“Historically, women have not always developed skills that allow them to be comfortable with that.” “You have to be able to make a call.”
Whaling says Sandberg’s message of “leaning in” is one she takes to heart, too.
“Instead of feeling pressure to fit into a preconceived mold, each individual needs to assess their priorities and feel empowered to go after goals without giving in to societal pressures or constraints,” she says.
RELATED: 5 reasons women are effective PR leaders
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.