As if being chief operating officer at Facebook was not enough, Sheryl Sandberg has singlehandedly made feminism as sexy as the next iPad. Her book, "Lean In," is red meat for envious bloggers and mostly admiring mainstream media.
After nearly a decade of feminist ennui, diversity doublespeak and corporate-world gender stall, Sandberg has perked up legions of pants-suited strivers suffering from mid-career doldrums or excessive work-life-balance introspection by urging them to move up and lead.
The stark facts: Four percent of Fortune 1000 companies have female CEOs or boards of directors that are 18 percent women.
"Lean In" isn't being read in a vacuum: There's a pent-up push to change the corporate paradigm. "There is momentum," says Steve Henderson, the Auburn Hills-based president of Dow Automotive Systems, who has made promoting women and minorities a priority.
It didn't come naturally: He began thinking seriously about promoting women as his daughters began thinking about their careers.
"For me, it's a passion that's very personal," he said in a phone call Wednesday from Brazil. "It's clear that having a diverse workforce helps you make better decisions at all levels."
But it's been a "journey" for him to understand how to implement a change in his company's culture.
Just as Sandberg urges women to "lean in" or "sit at the table" rather than hanging at the periphery, Henderson says he discovered women managers don't necessarily ask for what they want.
"You offer a man a promotion or a new project and he jumps up and says he'll do it," he said. "With women, sometimes you say, 'You'll be amazing in this role,' and she'll say, 'But …'
"I started to see that I couldn't just offer: I had to reach out and lend a hand.
"If a man wants to go to a school conference, he just goes. Women are more likely to ask for permission."
There was a need, he said, to follow up with more conversations, to address concerns directly.
So why bother? He says the reason is two-fold: Because he wants to see his people "living their dreams" and he wants to fully use talent. "Around the world," he says, "women are my best performers."
I first heard Henderson speak last week, at a breakfast that unveiled research from the U.S. Chamber's Center for Women in Business. One finding: Companies that performed best in diversity outperformed other companies in the bottom line.
Henderson believes that. He is drilling that message into his company, where most of the top executives are men. "I can drive the business culture. We're here to make money; that's what it's about."
Sandberg's stylish, has-it-all-covered persona makes her a charismatic messenger for women in the world of work, as they trudge up the middle-management Stairmaster.
Just as heartening, though, is a midwestern automotive executive like Henderson, trying just as hard as she is to create a corporate stairway to the stars.
Laura Berman's column runs Tuesday and Thursday.
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