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Sheryl Sandberg’s Book Addresses Lack of Female Executives

With her new book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg clearly hoped to spark discussion about female ambition and opportunity in the workplace.

She might not have expected her observations and prescriptions to bring her the kind of criticism she’s received for holding women to standards, both personal and professional, that many see as unattainable.

But whatever one’s reaction to “Lean In,” it has brought into focus, once again, the disparity between the number of men and women who hold leadership roles in major businesses. It’s a reality faced by many female heads of Silicon Valley start ups, both new and veteran.

They have seen the issues that Sandberg has raised play out in their own experiences, and though they can’t pinpoint one sure-fire solution, many agree about the need to form support groups, seek out role models and get more girls interested in math and science earlier.

Ann Scott Plante, 29, co-founder of Wello, a video-based workout website started in July, said her goal as a female executive is to make high-achieving women like Sandberg no longer the exceptions.

“It’s worth calling out situations where it doesn’t seem like a level playing field,” Scott Plante said. “We should aspire to do everything we can to play with the boys and make a more friendly environment for women.”

A look at recent data on the topic of workplace parity in upper echelon positions underscores Sandberg’s concerns. A 2012 report from executive search firm Spencer Stuart points out that top leadership positions are still overwhelmingly held by men.

“The slow progress is discouraging,” the report says. “Women now account for just over 17 percent of independent directors, up from 16 percent in 2007 and 12 percent in 2002. Nine percent of S&P 500 companies do not have any female directors.”

A mere 21 of the Fortune 500 chief executives are women.

Matthew Bidwell, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article for a Wharton business school publication on gender segregation in managerial roles. He focused on professional women entering the workforce, and found that fewer who finished MBA programs chose investor-type jobs, because those positions require more stereotypically male attributes and attitudes.

“At least at lower levels, I found the positive thing is that women aren’t being discriminated against,” Bidwell said. “But at the same time, managing stereotypes is harder than managing discrimination.”

Catherine Wolfram, an associate professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School, studied the “leaky pipe” theory, which says that women aren’t staying in positions long enough to rise through the ranks. Her study found that 15 years after graduating from Harvard College, 28 percent of the females who received MBAs were stay-at-home moms, while only 6 percent of those earning medical degrees left their jobs, suggesting the business world is less female-friendly.

For women in leadership in Silicon Valley, negotiating the path to their roles has been a constant learning experience, some of it unpleasant.

Jamie Walker, 30, CEO of online health community Fit Approach, is releasing the fitness class application called Sweat Guru this spring. She recalled once inquiring of a panel of venture capitalists how many female start-up businesses were in their portfolios.

One panelist responded: “We’re not looking at whether you have boobs are not.”

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