Have you ever heard of Rosalind Franklin? Probably not. But you certainly know of James Watson and Francis Crick.
They won a Nobel Prize for describing the structure of DNA, a discovery they wouldn’t have made if they hadn’t seen Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray photograph of the DNA double helix. She was also kind enough to explain why their original model made no sense from a chemistry perspective, and she told them how to fix it. Whether the two men stole Franklin’s data is debatable, but at minimum, she deserves as much credit for the discovery of DNA structure as Watson and Crick. It seems that she was a much better scientist than self-promoter, however, and her male colleagues did not feel compelled to share the glory.
Franklin was not the first and certainly won’t be the last woman to be cheated out of credit for her work. She might have been denied recognition even if she had been a man. Sadly, however, research shows that even in the 21st century, women in a range of disciplines are seen as less competent and less deserving of praise than male counterparts.
“Lean in!” Sheryl Sandberg says to women. That’s probably excellent advice, if being aggressive, self-aggrandizing, and unafraid to bite off more than you can chew is what it takes to succeed. The problem for many of us, though, is that such a change would require a personality transplant. Even if it were possible to change ourselves so radically, we like being generous team players and mentors. We like being considerate to others and modest about our accomplishments. We think we’re pretty great the way we are, thank you very much.
The workplace should think we’re pretty great the way we are too. Companies with the most women on their board of directors financially outperform those with the fewest women on their boards. A study by Dow Jones (pdf) focused on venture-backed startups found that odds for success increase with more female executives at the vice president and director levels; the median proportion of female executives at successful companies was more than double that at unsuccessful ones. Another study showed that for firms with innovation-oriented strategies, the presence of a woman in top management amounts to creating extra market value of about $44 million (pdf). Women may not get much credit for their work, but it cannot be denied that they add a great deal of value.
Of course, correlation does not prove causation. It may be that successful companies have more women leaders because women are better than men at picking the best organizations to work for, or maybe those companies are located in geographical areas where there are a higher percentage of educated women. If we are to use Occam’s razor, however, we will favor the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions: Women may not get credit for their work, but they add a great deal of value. Right now, that value is not being properly attributed to individual women in the workplace, which hampers their progress, ironically causing there to be fewer women in leadership positions.
It may be that all of the women in management and on boards of directors are leaning in so hard that they’re about to fall over, but that seems unlikely. If women were behaving just like men in the workplace, it’s hard to see how they could add so much incremental value. We’re good at many things, but men will beat us every time at being men, no matter how far we lean in. It seems much more likely that women are bringing behaviors and qualities to organizations that men generally lack, but because those behaviors and qualities do not fit traditional leadership stereotypes, they tend to be unrecognized and unvalued.
Telling all women to lean in is a bit like telling all of the players on a basketball team to focus on their jump shot. There may be glory in scoring points, but nobody can win without a good defense. Just because someone’s contribution is hard to measure, that doesn’t mean that their participation is not absolutely critical, and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get credit for their work. The NBA knows this, and it has found ways to better capture the intangibles of the game using hustle stats, a measure of players’ grit, grind, and dirty-work contributions. It recognized that other metrics unfairly reward offensive players, and instead of telling everyone to get on the offensive, it added a metric. The NBA isn’t doing this to be nice or fair; it’s doing it to win.
Hustle stats would be a useful model for all organizations to adopt. Instead of telling women to lean in, we should come up with ways to better recognize women’s contributions in the workplace. The success of an entire team should not be attributed to a single individual, and employees should not be valued only for their perceived leadership skills. Teams should identify the members who are indispensable, which is not the same thing as members who demonstrate authority. Intangible contributions can be measured through 360-degree evaluations that ask about the people who are most sought after for help and advice, the ones most likely to complete important tasks nobody else wants to undertake, the ones who consistently offer the best ideas. Those who amplify other people should be rewarded more than those who only amplify their own voices. Where possible, like in software code reviews, performance evaluations should be blind to gender. Organizational knowledge can be tapped to identify the people who are really contributing to success instead of just the ones who are pushy enough to take the most shots on goal, or worse, take credit for other people’s goals.
Leaning in is a good idea for women who can do it without feeling that they have sold their souls to be successful. We also want to capture the value produced by the many brilliant, talented women who are not suited to be cutthroat offensive players or swaggering cowboys. Employers should consider altering the way they assign credit to great team players, not in order to help women, but to help themselves.