Who's to Blame?

Poll: Women Say They Are Leaning In

A new poll by the Center for American Progress and Elle magazine pushes back against the notion that women are holding themselves back in the office.

Why aren’t there more women leaders? Do women hold themselves back? Or is there something more intangible going on in the workplace? A new survey commissioned by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and Elle magazine pushes back against the notion that women are to blame, finding that more than half of the women interviewed say they speak up frequently in meetings, and “only 14 percent of mothers think their bosses give them less responsibility out of concern that they’re too busy with their families.”

Participants in the survey were 1,200 randomly selected working individuals between 25 and 54, equally divided between men and women. It was conducted in May, soon after Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, made the case that women were their own worst enemies, and weren’t supportive of other women. “Women report they are leaning in and staying forward, and they’re seeking raises and promotions,” says Robbie Myers, Elle’s editor in chief.

Yet one of the results that the magazine highlights is that 53 percent of women have never asked for a raise. That seems like a lot, but put in perspective, the survey found 40 percent of men haven’t stepped up to that challenge either. The weak economy might be a factor.

One finding with potential political implications is widespread support for paid maternity leave, even among Republicans. The numbers are off the charts: Republicans (83 percent), Democrats (89 percent), men (80 percent), and women (87 percent). The Family Leave Act, vetoed twice by President George H.W. Bush before President Clinton signed it into law, requires that businesses with more than 50 employees offer maternity leave—but doesn’t stipulate that it be paid.

Offsetting the mostly positive data for women is what Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden calls a “shocking and negative” finding that one in three respondents who hold leadership positions, regardless of their gender, admitted that they think one of the reasons women don’t occupy top jobs in business is because they aren’t “tough enough,” a label that continues to stick despite ample evidence to the contrary. The “massive stereotyping,” says Tanden, “shows why we have such a leadership lag. Women are described more negatively, and people are comfortable saying these things out loud.”

Males are more likely to be thought of as “aggressive” while females are “polite”; female leaders are “compassionate” and “perfectionists,” while male leaders are more “bossy” and “stressed”; females are more likely “easy to work with,” while males are more likely to be “emotional.” That last one stands out since women once owned the adjective “emotional.” Perhaps this is progress of a sort if men’s emotions are now fair game.

Among the findings highlighted in the September issue of Elle, on the newsstands this week, is that 63 percent of men now share with women the burden of guilt about not spending time with family. Even more interesting, 50 percent of the men surveyed said they left work incomplete in order to deal with a family matter. Only 34 percent of women admitted to doing that. “Maybe women are getting their work done,” says Myers, who points out men are 232 percent more likely than women to be called lazy.

Put another way, women have been juggling work and family for so long that maybe they’re just better at multitasking. That’s probably what most women would say if asked about efficiency.

More men than women are leaders, but men are considered more difficult to work with—not necessarily for. Income is the most important factor for both men and women when it comes to work, but women are more likely to agree that their income is “essential.”

These gender disparities are evident throughout the survey, but one area where everyone agrees is whether women are scrutinized in the workplace more harshly than men. Both men and women agreed that was true. “There is more equity between men and women in what they say they want,” says Myers. A job outside the home with flexibility to work at home tops the list. “But both men and women feel women overall aren’t judged fairly in terms of our capabilities.”

The implications of that perception permeate the workplace every day, and while men and women agree that “some progress” has been made in the last 10 years, women, especially older women (45–54) are less likely to think there’s been “a lot of progress.” For businesses and politicians looking to advance family-friendly policies, there is plenty of room to maneuver, and a surprising amount of common ground to score points with both women and men.