Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Will peer pressure help women?

February 14, 2012: 12:14 PM ET

Sheryl Sandberg keeps on giving. Journalistically, that is. Last week, here on Postcards, we riffed on the New York Times profile of Sandberg, whose ambition for young women in business seems to match her ambition for Facebook, where she is COO. That is: Just do it...take over the world.

On Saturday, CNN.com ran a story titled "How to have more Sheryl Sandbergs." The key? "Peer influence," posed the authors, Courtney E. Martin and Katie Orenstein.

The authors explained what results when too few peers go for it, career-wise: "In many cases, the impulse to do something out of the norm of our peer group, like write an opinion piece or ask for a promotion, has simply never occurred to us. If it does, we don't act on it. Our girlfriends aren't doing it. Our female colleagues aren't doing it. Why should we?"

In other words, we need more Sheryl Sandbergs to create more Sheryl Sandbergs.

Today, when only 18 women lead Fortune 500 companies, we need more role models. Graca Foster was just designated the first female CEO of a major oil company: Brazil-based Petrobras, No. 34 on Fortune's Global 500. Great, but progress toward equality at the top remains slow.

As we look for new models and peers, coincidentally, I had a recent visit from the woman who sparked the creation of Fortune Most Powerful Women. In 1996, Charlotte Beers, who was then CEO of ad giant Ogilvy & Mather (WPP), appeared on Fortune's cover for a story that I wrote called "Women Sex & Power." Now 76 and still irrepressible, Beers has a new book called "I'd Rather Be in Charge," and she stopped by to compare notes on women and power.

Why too few women are taking charge today, as she sees the situation: There is no blueprint for women leaders to follow.

"When asked to show their leadership capacity, women miss the cues because they don't know what leadership is supposed to look like," Beers told me.

While women are generally viewed as more emotional than men, it is the men, Beers says, who tend to display emotion more openly in the office. And to their advantage: "Men can express exactly how they feel and make it memorable and persuasive," she says.

As for getting promoted at work, men are much more adept: "Men know their bravery threshold, how resilient they are, and whether they can bluff their way through," Beers contends. Men's success largely relates to playing sports in their youth--which girls would be wise to do more of too.

Women at work, bound to a narrower band of socially acceptable behavior, often question--or even worse, turn down--promotions. This is what Sandberg, 42, warns against in her classic Fortune essay, "Don't Leave Before You Leave." Instead of reacting to a promotion opportunity with a timid "Are you sure?," Beers favorite line: "What makes you think I can do this?"

Good advice. The ad maven from the Mad Men era got me wondering: How many women will we see at the top decades from now, when Sandberg delivers her memoirs?

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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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