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Gannett Co., Inc. (GCI), Facebook Inc (FB): “Lean In,” Women’s Work Is Still Never Done

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“As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it,” said Paul Tudor Jones, a successful hedge fund manager. He uttered those words in reference to trading acumen at an April symposium at the University of Virginia, and for many, the statement arguably makes him sound like quite a buffoon.

Gannett Co., Inc. (NYSE:GCI)

It’s a sad reminder that despite females’ great strides into the workforce, gender issues still exist. They’re just rarely verbalized and considered impolite to mention. Although Jones admitted that motherhood is a “beautiful experience,” it doesn’t make up for his implication that that grand and beautiful commitment undermines women’s intellects. He also said that motherhood is a “killer” when it comes to trading focus.

Remarks like these underline why Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is an important book. Sandberg shoots pretty straight from the hip about the complexities and difficult choices women still face in their careers, and how much of these choices and fears have everything to do with their lives and happiness.

Sandberg is one of corporate America’s strongest women, and represents a growing number of top female managers. Too bad the number is growing glacially. As Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB)‘s chief operating officer, Sandberg champions women’s issues — a dangerous topic to verbalize at all in corporate America.

Even current events highlight some of Sandberg’s themes. First off, corporate America recently lost one female CEO, a discouraging development at a time when when getting more women into higher positions relies on having more women in higher positions.

‘s Christine Day recently resigned. I can’t help but think: Dang it, we just lost another female CEO from the already small ranks. Apparently investors did take her seriously enough, though, given the stock’s 17% plunge after her announcement. Day’s departure obviously isn’t viewed as a positive moment for Lululemon Athletica inc. (NASDAQ:LULU)‘s performance and growth potential.

On a positive note, consider Gannett Co., Inc. (NYSE:GCI)‘s recent $1.5 billion acquisition of Belo Corp. (NYSE:BLC). Investors are thrilled, and bid the stock up by 35% given the potential growth opportunities after the announcement. But one element of the acquisition that The Wall Street Journalreported is a less high-profile one: This deal was negotiated between two female CEOs, Gannett’s Gracia Martore and Belo’s Dunia Shive. Martore said that given the women’s relationship, their negotiations “had a lot less drama” than the traditionally negotiated deal, which sounds less adversarial than many such negotiations might be, with the parties involved truly focused on a useful business transaction.

One of the bankers involved in the deal, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM)‘s Jennifer Nason, said, “There’s often a lot of swashbuckling in deals. … Here there was no nonsense, just a push to get it done, and do it right. We aren’t here to be masters of the universe.”

That’s truly awesome.

Of course, Sandberg’s book does bring up the idea that there is often a special highlight of executive women’s actions, successes, and failures. They’re held to a different standard than men because there are so few of them running around yet. It’s why many women become afraid or concerned about going for powerful positions to begin with.

Having now read Sandberg’s book in its entirety, I’m not sure why some critics rejected it so vociferously, particularly female critics. Whether the ideas she shares are infuriating or not, they strike me as simply honest about many of the stumbling blocks women face.

Here are just a few highlights from the book that I found particularly thought-provoking, albeit disturbing:

  • A 2011 McKinsey study showed that men are more often raised up the ranks for “potential,” while women have to prove past accomplishment.
  • Research has shown that success and likability are positively related for men, but negatively correlated for women. Believe it or not, this is true of both men’s and women’s attitudes. In other words, women also like other women less if they are successful.
  • A Carnegie University study showed an incredible discrepancy in master’s degree holders’ salary negotiations. Of the pool, 57% of the male students tried to negotiate for a higher offer, but a mere 7% of women did. In separate studies, women often report their performance as lower than it is, while men judge theirs as higher.

Citations make up 30% of the Kindle edition of Lean In, so those who found Sandberg’s words infuriating might want to count to 10. Although sometimes her words are personal anecdotes or metaphors — like, say, women trying to cross a minefield in high heels — most of her statements and opinions are backed up by research and studies.

Women still have many choices to make, and there’s a fine balance between begging women to “lean in” and letting them make their own choices, such as taking time out of the workforce to raise children. These are very personal, individual decisions, and all are legitimate.

Sandberg entreats women to “lean in” and get their seats at the table, and to stop undermining their own ambitions. However, she also admits that family matters very much.

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