Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Will women reach parity at the top? Sheryl Sandberg's take

December 27, 2011: 9:48 AM ET

Over Christmas weekend, Sheryl Sandberg emailed me, sounding a bit distressed.

Referring to a big story about Fortune's Most Powerful Women in Sunday's Washington Post (WPO), the Facebook COO asked if I'd been misquoted in saying that I believe women will never have 50% of the top jobs in corporate America. "Don't depress me!" Sandberg wrote.

Sorry, Sheryl, the Post quoted me correctly.

I do, in fact, believe that women won't ever—ever!--reach parity at the top "not because of glass ceilings, not because of any kind of discrimination, but because women make different choices. And have more choices." As I told Sandberg in my reply to her email: "That's OK. It implies more female power distributed to other spheres beyond business. The trick is, we have to urge great women to rise to the top in the right places beyond business."

Sandberg's response? She worries that I'm right but added: "I really believe that there is no reason women can't have 50% of the jobs at every level and men can't run 50% of the homes. We all have to keep trying until we get there."

Right on. This is wise advice for starting 2012. At the moment, there are too many women of extraordinary drive and potential who feel too comfortable in support roles, who "lean back" in their careers, who "leave before they leave," as Sandberg put it perfectly in her classic Guest Post about women and careers.

It's true, even Fortune Most Powerful Women rising to Fortune 500 CEO posts—including Ginni Rometty, who takes the top job at IBM (IBM) next week—sometimes have to convince themselves to embrace the power that lies within them.

The Post story got me thinking about power and my own comfort with it. The piece is a terrific inside look at how we at Fortune developed the annual Most Powerful Women rankings  and expanded the annual list into hot-ticket events and a growing community that does socially good work around the world. But what was supposed to be a MPW story focuses way too much on me--who was present at the creation in 1998 and happens to be the lead survivor.

The truth is, MPW thrives because of unwavering support at the top of Time Inc.—including Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer and former Time Inc. (TWX) CEO Ann Moore--plus the best conference team in the business (credit to Needham Partners) and my Most Powerful Women Summit co-chairs, Fortune Executive Editor Stephanie Mehta and Washington Editor Nina Easton. Without these and many other passionate partners, MPW is just a dream.

Last night, as my stomach still churned over my center-stage role in the Post story, an email popped into my mailbox from Hilary Rosen, who is a prominent PR pro at SKDKnickerbocker in Washington and  has been to many MPW Summits: "Who knows better than you that people are the best vehicles to tell a story? ;)"

Alright, I got the message. I will do what I advise others to do: accept the credit and own my power.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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