Don’t Lean In. Opt Out

Sallie Krawcheck says that if women want to get ahead, they just might have to write their own rules.
Illustration: Ping Zhu

Manifestoes for working women, much like working women themselves, are often held to an impossibly high standard. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was a best-seller, but critics—male and female—tore it apart because it asked women alone to fix their broken work environment. The criticism is valid; Sandberg has since admitted that it would be hard for a single mother to follow her advice. And yet male-authored advice books hardly get torn apart for failing to address intersectionality, privilege, and structural racism and sexism along with tips on how to climb the corporate ladder.

Sallie Krawcheck wants us to know, even before we open Own It: The Power of Women at Work (Crown Business, $27), that she excels in the face of such impossible standards—in heels, no less. The cover features Krawcheck, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Ellevest, an online investment service for women, perched atop a stepladder in black stilettos. Krawcheck gets how difficult it is for women to break into the executive class. She worked her way up in the banking industry, only to be let go from C-suite jobs at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch. Reflecting on her tenure at Citigroup, which ended about nine years ago, she says she believes gender played a major role in the tensions she experienced. The final straw, Krawcheck writes, came when she made an unpopular suggestion that she believed was in the company’s best interest: reimbursing some Citigroup customers for losses they’d suffered in the early days of the 2008 financial crisis.

Given how she frames her experiences, you wouldn’t expect Krawcheck to write that “being a woman in the business world is not a liability; it’s power.” The liability, she says, manifests primarily when women try to affect a masculine demeanor around the office: When women speak up, as she did, they’re judged more negatively than men. Women who negotiate the way men do are considered too pushy. So throughout the book, Krawcheck scatters tips on how to successfully leverage feminine traits. In a chapter titled “The Obligatory Ask-for-the-Raise and How-to-Negotiate Chapter (With a Twist),” she suggests that women pretend during salary negotiations that they’re at a PTA meeting. Research shows that women perform better when they’re fighting on behalf of someone else, such as their kids.

Her approach makes sense, but does it work? Here, Krawcheck runs into some trouble. She argues that companies resistant to women-friendly policies and practices will fail—but they haven’t, even as inhospitality remains the norm. The pay gap persists. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission got almost 13,000 complaints of sexual harassment in 2015, a number that’s held steady since 2011. Women enter corporate America at near-parity with men but occupy only 19 percent of C-suite positions, according to a recent survey by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, Sandberg’s nonprofit. In another recent survey, by MWW Public Relations and Wakefield Research, three-quarters of respondents said they believe women are worse at delivering financial returns for companies. The opposite is true: Numerous studies say that organizations with female managers perform better on average than those led by men. Whatever Krawcheck’s hopes, women tend to get penalized no matter how they act on their way to the top. Those who get there are often set up for failure, tapped to lead only in moments of crisis, when the odds of succeeding are slim to none, a phenomenon known as the glass cliff.

Ultimately, Krawcheck argues, there may be no way for women to work within the system and win, no matter how often they transform perceived liabilities into assets. Her most useful—and radical—advice comes in chapters that urge women to opt out. In “Literally Own It: Start Your Own Thing,” she encourages women to start businesses. When that happens, “there’s no playing by the boys’ club rules,” she writes. “No asking permission.” Since the system isn’t working for us, it’s time for us to build our own.

 

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