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12 Jul. 2012 | Comments (0)

Why so few women at the top of American business? Two famous American women offer two very different — and pretty representative — perspectives.

For Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, the issue lies with women. They 'leave before they leave', don't raise their voices, don't stay at the table, aren't ambitious enough...

In stark contrast, Princeton Dean (and former state department official) Anne-Marie Slaughter, in a much-read piece in this month's Atlantic uses her own personal choices to explain "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." She positions her own personal choice between continuing at the White House and a troubled son as 'not having it all.' Her case is that America needs to adapt to allow parents to be parents, humans to be humans.

The most interesting thing about this debate is how dated both sides sound.

And while gender balance in the workplace is seen as a moral, social and political issue, the economics of the argument are left out. As are the investments required to tap into the economic opportunities opened by women's 20th century rise.

Enough, already!

We need a new frame on this debate. The US has convinced itself that it is ahead in the area of gender, when actually it has fallen behind in recent years. Women remain in their prisoners' dilemma, buying the arguments (and accusations by their elder sisters or their own consciences) that they don't work hard enough, yell loud enough or lean in enough.

Most of the (usually male) CEOs I work with have a more enlightened view. They don't want women to ape men in order to succeed. They want their companies to benefit from balance, and they are working to adapt their corporate processes to today's talent realities, recognizing that parenting (and elder care) is becoming a human activity, not a women's responsibility. See, as an example, my recent blog on NESTLE CEO Paul Bulcke.

American women don't help younger women by constantly focusing the debate on work/ life balance, as though those two things were opposites. Women like Slaughter and Sandberg would better leverage their considerable clout by reminding leaders of the opportunities that women unleash rather than rehashing (yet again) that moms can't have it all.... And that mothers need to choose.

Actually, business needs to choose. And smart companies are.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 06/26/2012.

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  • About the Author:Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

    Avivah  Wittenberg-Cox

    Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of 20-first, a leading international gender-balance consultancy. 20-first works with top management at some of the world’s best-known companies to identify the busin…

    Full Bio | More from Avivah Wittenberg-Cox


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