It's the annual conclave of the presumed powerful, the World Economic Forum in Davos, with the wealthy flying in on private jets to discuss issues like global poverty. As always, it's a sea of men. This year, female participation is 17 percent.
Perhaps that's not surprising, considering that global business and political leaders are overwhelmingly male. In the U.S., only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women, a mere 3 percent of board chairs are women — and women are barely represented in President Barack Obama's Cabinet.
Indeed, I'm guessing that the average boardroom doesn't have much better gender equality than a team of cave hunters attacking a woolly mammoth 30,000 years ago.
So what gives? A provocative answer comes from Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who has written a smart book due out in March that attributes the gender gap, in part, to chauvinism and corporate obstacles — but also, in part, to women who don't aggressively pursue opportunities.
"We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in," Sandberg writes in the book, called "Lean In."
"We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet."
Sandberg and I discussed the issue on a panel here in Davos, and I think that there is something real and important in what she says. When I lecture at universities, the first questions are invariably asked by a man — even at a women's college. When I point at someone in a crowd to ask a question, the women in the area almost always look at each other hesitantly — and any man in the vicinity jumps up and asks his question.
A McKinsey survey published in April found that 36 percent of male employees at major companies aspired to be top executives, compared with 18 percent of the women. <NO1>A study of Carnegie Mellon MBA graduates in 2003 found that 57 percent of the men, but only 7 percent of the women, tried to negotiate a higher initial salary offer.