Are women taking over the world?

Are women taking over the world? Or are they dropping out where it counts?

Yesterday I watched two TED talks. The first was by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. It was called “Why we have too few women leaders.”

Sandberg talks about ways to encourage girls and women to succeed in corporate environments. It’s lonely at the top. She’s made deals with CEOs of important companies who couldn’t direct her to the women’s bathroom, because she was the first woman who had been in that part of the building. Women, Sandberg insists, underestimate themselves constantly. When men are asked to explain their success, they attribute it to their personal awesomeness. When women are asked the same question, they name the people who helped them along the way, and consider themselves lucky. Remember when I was talking about ambition? I’m like a prophet. Kidding (especially since these talks were given a month ago. Being a prophet of the past isn’t nearly as impressive). But really– this stuff is everywhere.

The second TED talk I watched was by Hanna Rosin, the amazing journalist who recently wrote “The End of Men” for The Atlantic. It was called “New data on the rise of women.”

Rosin describes a scene at a men’s group in Kansas, where an instructor tells the assembled unemployed working class men (who are there because they can’t pay child support), “Eighty-five thousand dollars. That’s her salary. Twelve-thousand dollars. That’s your salary. So who’s the man now? Who’s the damn man? SHE’S the man.”

The skill gap in the workforce is widening and widening. It’s gaping like a wound. Like a bottomless chasm. And women are represented in dramatically large numbers on the side of skilled labor, and men are being left behind in the land of unskilled labor. For every two men who graduate college, three women are graduating as well. Women make up the majority of the workforce. Over fifty percent of managers are women. Women are taking over the world!

Except at the top. Women are not taking over the top of the world. Where are all the female CEOs and senators? Where are the female billionaires who invented a technological product no one can live without? Is that the part we’re supposed to be patient about? Should we tell Sheryl Sandberg to stop whining– she’ll have company eventually. One thing at a time. Should we tell Hanna Rosin it isn’t enough? Women need to be able to go all the way!


An ambitious, incredibly smart friend of mine recently told me she’d gotten into a great PhD program. A famous member of the department was interested in working with her. Everything was going perfectly.

I said, “I hope you’re just sitting around feeling brilliant and impressive all the time.”

“Actually,” she said, “I’m nervous. I feel like I’ve tricked them.”

There it is. What Sandberg is talking about. So many women feel like they don’t quite belong. Like they’re tricking their way into the system. Like things might fall apart at any moment. Maybe we’re becoming the majority of the workforce, but we still need to be reminded that we are not there by accident. That we should ask for a promotion, because we deserve a promotion.

I felt stupid in grad school. I was surrounded by men. I felt like I didn’t know anything and they knew everything. These days, I’m beginning to think that knowing everything isn’t the point. Thinking you know the right amount is. Believing that no matter where you are now, you have what it takes to succeed. That’s the important thing.

So let’s start believing.

*  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love the feeling I get when I open the door to my apartment and go inside and I can take off most of my clothes.

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared on Huffpo today.


Kate on February 2nd 2011 in feminism, life

28 Responses to “Are women taking over the world?”

  1. Erin Block responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Un-roast: I love my breasts, and that they are just the right size so that I can go braless…and no one notices! :)

  2. Dana Udall-Weiner responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    Amen! (A-women?)

  3. LIT responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    As a lady chemist with a Master’s, I also feel that I have somehow fooled the world. Even though I realize that I’m intelligent…

    unroast: I love how I relate to every one of your posts!

  4. Lilli responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    I know exactly what you’re talking about Kate… but i also can see where your friend is coming from, because i’m ambitious, i want to go to Oxbridge university, study law and become a kick-ass lawyer, but at the moment i’m sitting my exams, and every time i get a good grade i get the feeling i’ve just got it by a hoax, and that one day, in the far-flung future, someone is going to stand up, point a finger at me and shout ‘that girl is a fake!’, and i’m not going to be able to argue, because i do feel like i end up being thought of as ‘intelligent’ by chance, rather than through my own merits….
    I do think there should be MANY more women at the top, but the top of almost EVERY area in life seems weirdly dominated by men, even in the schooling system, where the majority of teachers are female, but heads and so on are male… how has this happened?
    Anyways, i love what you’re saying :)
    Un-roast: Today i’m just really glad i can see things … even if i do need little bits of plastic on my retina to do so :)

  5. Autumn responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    Ah, impostor syndrome! I see it in nearly all my female friends in academia, even when they’re in female-dominant fields. I’ve worked for most of my career in women’s magazines and this is one thing we’re spared by and large, I’m guessing because it’s been a female-dominated industry for so long. (We make up for it in beauty insecurities, natch.) I wonder if impostor syndrome will be vestigial in the next generation in academia?

  6. Kate responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Interesting point about female teachers and male directors of education. I just watched another talk (I spent a lot of time watching talks last night) about how boys are being left behind in school, and the woman who was speaking argued that boys don’t have male role models in school, because all of their teachers are women. I thought that was a good point, but yours complicates it in an important way.

  7. Jess responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Yep yep, I have impostor syndrome, too. I’ve also watched as the number of women surrounding me has dropped off–from freshman physics to senior physics, from undergrad to grad school. Looking at all the incoming postdocs/staff scientists/faculty in my department…well, they are 95% male. And I don’t know if I plan on staying in the field beyond a postdoc, myself.

    There are plenty of studies about women in physics and why our number keep decreasing. For me, personally, I just don’t want my life to be consumed by plasma physics. To succeed in this field, to really get to the top, that’s what it seems to take. I want to work enough to support my LIFE, I don’t want my life to be my work! (Or however that saying goes.)

    Un-roast: I love how my calves look in skinny jeans and big ol’ wellies, stompin’ in puddles.

  8. Kate responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Another thing that Sandberg says is that women get distracted. They’re thinking about the rest of their lives. About having kids. They have other priorities. She warns against this, but really, is it something that we should definitely try to avoid? Having a life is really important. Maybe women just care about it more than men. If so, it seems harder to convince them that they have to be CEO of Google or whatever.

    But clearly, there are other reasons why women don’t climb the corporate ladder, and those have nothing to do with personal ambition. That stuff is really worth looking at.

  9. B1 responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    I know I won’t be popular with this, but here goes. Men and women are physicologically made up differently. Women tend to lean towards their emotional side, even when their logical side has been more educationally developed. You notice that they say they ‘feel’ whereas men just do it for the sake of doing it. Women will always ‘feel’, which is why we have the silly womb to carry babies and nurture them. I don’t know of any man that is capable of handling the pain of childbirth… their bodies were not made to handle it.

  10. Ashley responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Great post. Gives much to think about. Is it me or does it seem like people aren’t as excited for the first woman president anymore? I can’t wait for the day.

  11. Kate responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    It’s not just you. I can’t wait either, but I sometimes feel like a lot of people are thinking, “So what?”

  12. Holly responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    I have felt this before–what Autumn calls Imposter Syndrome–but I haven’t articulated it so clearly. I am rendered thoughtful.

  13. Holly responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    @Lilli YES we have a term for that in sociology! It’s called the Glass Escalator.

  14. 2girlsonabench responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    OMG we’re “the man” now? This is the day we’ve been waiting for! But wait, why are women still paid less than men?

  15. B1 responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Funny that now we’re talking about a woman President. I remember when it was still undecided who was going to be running, Hillary or Obama, and I told this guy that at the time our country wasn’t ready for a woman President. Now that the mold has been broken, getting a woman in now is old hat. :-)

  16. rachel responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    It’s too easy to say inequality exists because women don’t know how to ask for what they deserve, are more interested in life outside of work, etc, as if these things have no relation to patriarchal culture. (Even worse to say its because we’re biologically made to want different things than men.) That kind of thinking places all the burden on individual women to escape convention. Instead we need to ask how our culture encourages women not to be ambitious, to want children, to be team players, etc.

    An example. One might argue that women don’t get promotions, because they don’t ask for them as often as men do. That’s true, women don’t ask. But, when women do ask, they have to perform a behavior coded as masculine. In other words, when a man asks for a raise or promotion, he’s self-assured. When a woman asks, she’s full of herself.

  17. Kate responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    You’re right. But sometimes it’s easy to feel helpless when everything is “because of patriarchy.” Women CAN ask for promotions. And they can get them when they ask.

  18. rachel responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    When we (women) doubt ourselves, I think it’s empowering to realize that all of that anxiety doesn’t just come from within, but that we’re responding to real pressures. We can better believe in what we deserve when we acknowledge who/what is telling us we don’t deserve it.

    Anyway, I don’t think the impostor syndrome thing is only for women. In my PhD program everyone has it. (The graduate student population is around 80% female, and the active faculty is about 50/50.) I wonder if having a female dominant culture allows the men in our program to feel comfortable admitting their anxieties, but I’d bet good money that men in similar situations share a lot of the same worries, even when they don’t talk about it.

  19. Kate responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    I agree. It’s important to realize that it’s not just us. That there’s more to it. But it’s equally important to realize that we have power.

    Bear was just saying that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome. I told him that I know a lot of guys who don’t seem to at all. Not that he isn’t manly enough. But I really think there are plenty of guys who don’t feel this way. Interesting speculation about your program…

  20. San D responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    There’s always the bit about how not all women want to be at the head of the snake as it were, i.e. CEO, President, etc. I took courses to be a supervisor in my school (again mostly male), and during those courses I realized that it was all BS and that I would be most effective in the classroom as not only a teacher, but a role model to other teachers. I did quite well in the Supervisory courses not only academically, but when “role playing” I treated all of the “teachers” as I would have wanted to be treated in real life. I never filed the paperwork with the state knowing that if I did, the school system could automatically appoint me to the position, a position I might add that would have taken me out of the classroom and into the realm of politics, paperwork, and parents. While we may lament the absence of women in certain key positions, whether politics or commerce, I would like to see an honest survey asking if women make certain choices knowing that these choices may not lead to positions of power.

  21. Corny responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    I’d like to take over the world. Why else would I want to double major in international studies and computer science?

    No, but really. Right now I go to an all-girls Catholic high school. (I’m not catholic, but I’m also not obsessed with boys, so it works.) Being one of those abnormal kids who doesn’t really understand All the Meticulous Little Rules of Social Interactions and Hanging Out and Which TV Show Is Cooler than the Nerdy Sci-fi You Watch, I never picked up on the girls vs. guys rules in middle school. Now, after 4 years of only girls, I feel like college will be really weird.

    I take band through the guys’ school, and even through that, I’ve noticed a huge difference. Guys are allowed to be funny and kind of obnoxious in class; girls aren’t. Guys are allowed to eat as many of the really tasty pretzel roll sandwiches as they want; girls can’t. But of course, if I want to be friends with these guys with whom I actually do have things in common, I’m not allowed to wear a dress, or sometimes wear makeup because I want to, or say that I find someone attractive.

    Why are there so many rules for these things?

    Un-roast: today I love that I spent the day in a pair of jeans I don’t like, a boxy flannel shirt, frizzy hair, no-foundation-red skin, and felt fine. (It was a snow day, but it’s progress. That shirt is really boxy, and I’m not one of those girls who can pull off boxy shirts because of the incredible size of my breasts. Gah, more stupid rules!)

  22. Jim Melfi responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    I too enjoyed Sandberg’s TED Talk. As she was speaking I kept thinking that one reality she didn’t touch on was the overwhelming majority of men talks presenters. This seems strange given the fact that women are the biggest users of social media, including talks and lectures websites (see Johanna Blakley’s TED Talk). Having created and spending hours researching sites like TED, I come out of it all wanting to see many more women presenters on the various talks sites. Jim Melfi

  23. Kate responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    Good point. I’d like to see more women presenters, too. Awesome site, by the way!

  24. Mere responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Wow this is a really cool discussion. I love that there are lots of sides and people not getting angsty about it.
    Here’s my 5 (maybe10) cents worth.
    I think that women can be whatever they want when they put their minds to it. We are pretty darned fantastic. I understand people being upset about women having to fight harder to get to the top of the perch, fairness isn’t one of life’s givens, but I also get a little upset about people thinking that if they choose to be a mother, or any other career for that matter, that they aren’t ambitious. There is far more power in moulding lives and future generations. And I know that may sound sugary but seriously it is hand that rocks the cradle stuff. There is no doubt in my mind that if we all wanted to take over this world we could…but..perhaps we already have..just in a more covert way. And if we did take up every single TOP job, would the world necessarily be any better?
    In New Zealand we’ve had a couple of woman prime ministers and they each ran their own agendas just the same as men prime ministers have done.
    I wanna see the BEST person for the job (whatever the job). I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman..just please make it someone with a bit of guts, intelligence, integrity, and foresight (all qualities that a man or a woman can possess).
    Anyways thats some random thoughts from a potential world superpower, in any given field, that chooses to focus on being a mother of 5 and is endeavoring to raise children that will contribute positively to the world (as superpowers of course) that they live in. I tell ya…i should have chosen a less demanding job like President of the United States or something. ;-)

  25. poet responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 5:52 am #

    I actually believe that women’s perception of why they’re successful is closer to reality: Even if we are all awesome at what we do (and we are! yes we are!), a substantial part of getting somewhere is made up of luck and connections. You knew the right person at the right time who recommended you to someone else, you had the right mentor figure who helped you figure out your talents and goals, and so on… This also holds for men and they should finally acknowledge that… maybe then we can finally realize that acknowledging how someone else helped us does not diminish our own contribution, our own talent.

    That said, I know exactly what you mean by feeling like you’ve tricked them – I felt this way all through high school, college and part of graduate school, and I’m still struggling against it.

    Another reason for the glass ceiling, sad/cliche as it may be, is that more women than men tend to have a priority list in life that puts forth the importance of friends, family, leisure time, and personal balance rather than career only. This makes getting all the way to the top difficult because the way the game is set up, it requires sacrifices in exactly these areas. Of course this is something that society enables/enforces/encourages (it was traditionally women’s task to take care of the social connections and smooth out everyday life so the men could go ahead and have a career, blergh…), but I actually believe having these priorities is better for a human being as well as for society as a whole. If only everyone were able to have them and a career simultaneously because it was acknowledged that these personal needs make happier and probably more efficient workers on every level of the career ladder! One of my (male) bosses is Norwegian, and it’s awesome to see how he takes for granted leaving his job on time to fetch his kid from school, or taking an afternoon off to see a play with his family.


  26. Jim Melfi responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    Good comments. I would add, in regards to more women involved in talks, that more women should consider sponsoring talks and someone may want to take on the formidable task of assembling a website that is a robust collection of talks given by women. If anyone wants to step up to that task, I will be more than glad to offer input based on my research of many talks and lectures sites. Jim Melfi, founder,

  27. threegoodrats responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    I work in librarianship which is female-dominated, but still seems like most of the men are at the top.

    A couple of years ago I attended a leadership conference and something I heard there stuck with me : men will apply for jobs a level above anything they have ever done, whereas women tend to only apply for jobs they already know how to do. Good point, and since then I’ve made a point to reach higher. (Of course there are hardly any jobs in my field so I’m getting nowhere, but that’s another issue entirely!)

  28. Tron responded on 25 Dec 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    Women may be underreprsented in the board room but men are underrepresented in the home as custodial parents. States overwhelmingly favor moms as custodial parents. Why don’t women get together and be the role models for men and start accepting men as EQUAL parents. Stop making us fight for our kids Stop walking out of marriages. Stop having kids without men stop using men as sperm donors.