Women (and Others) at the Top: the “One-Up / One-Down” Paradox

Image representing Sheryl Sandberg as depicted...
Image via CrunchBase

Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg (pictured) does a terrific brief talk at TEDwomen “Why Few Women at the Top” – worth everyone viewing and everybody – not just women – taking note.

It is like my good (female) friend at a leading global investment bank who asked me to help her network with other senior women in financial services in San Francisco when I managed recruiting for Barclays Global Investors (at the time the world’s largest money manager – it’s now owned by BlackRock). I told her two names that I would gladly introduce her to (Susanne Lyons, former CMO at Schwab and Visa, and Liz Fisher, west coast manager for blue chip search firm SpencerStuart, if you’re wondering) and “the third is you. That’s it.

The University of Michigan’s Scott Page has done research (and published The Difference and Complex Adaptive Systems) on the performance of organizations that are diverse versus those that aren’t. The cut to the chase? Diverse organizations make significantly better mid-term and longer term decisions. Not so hot in a fire drill – much better in most everything else.

The value of Page’s work though is more than that. As a white male (like me) he can point out things about ethnicity and gender that get heard – things that women or people of color might say but will get discounted in part because it’s clearly in their own self interest. I think Sheryl Sandberg is terrific and hope I have the opportunity to work with her; when she talks about women in the workplace my bet is that some men tune it out. Not women – but some men. When Scott Page talks about gender in the workplace those same men that tuned out Sheryl listen.

Steven Jones uses the framework of “one-up / one-down” to describe a majority or dominant group and how they view life; right handers for example don’t notice (because they don’t have to) that the world is shaped to right handers. Ask any left hander and they’ll tell you that it’s a pain in the butt because things (scissors, ignition switches in cars, etc.) are geared primarily to right handers.

Under Dr. Jones framework you could be a one-up in many groups (ethnicity, education, handedness) and be a one-down in another (gender). (Disclosure: I have participated in some work that Steven Jones has done for my son’s school and he is terrific.) The deal though is that when you’re in the one-up position you take things for granted; the one-down slot becomes quasi-invisible to you because you’re not saddled with it. (At 6’5″ I notice that when I travel with my 5’7″ spouse and 8 year old son that they never notice that the airline seats are so cramped; they’re in the one up slot to my one down.)

Eucalyptus CEO Marten Mickos (who seems like a pretty good guy and businessperson – like my former Swedish-Finnish boss Magnus Lundgerg) proudly tweeted how diverse the exec team was that he had assembled – something like people from six or seven different countries. I pinged him about “no women?”  His response? “That’s next.” My hunch is that it hadn’t crossed Marten’s radar; being from abroad he was aware of being diverse internationally. As a male, he was less aware of the one-down status for women.

Here’s the rub; the people whose voice get heard best and loudest are frequently the one-ups talking about the position of the one-downs.

Hubie McMorrow (Note to Hubie: it’s another Hubie story) announced about the demise of the “honey do” system when I worked with him at McKesson in the early 1990’s. A taller, white, straight married exec, Hubie could put the death grip on a practice in a work culture that had too often relegated women to certain roles – as in – when speaking to a female employee – “Honey, would you please do this because I have more important things to accomplish.” Hubie’s voice about the gender issue could be heard loud and clear – and with much more impact perhaps than any women talking about gender who held the same role.

So Sheryl Sandberg’s gender piece is terrific. The next step though if you want to start driving more conversation and change is to get males like her colleague Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, or David Ebersman, Facebook’s CFO, to talk about gender issues as well – or even Sheryl, Mark or David talking about ethnic diversity issues if the really want to get the issue of one-ups and one-downs addressed.

Update: Marten Mickos (mentioned above) writes on January 6th:


Great blog posting!

As for women in the company and the management team, I would like to think that I am everything but “less aware”. I have been trying to recruit female executives for as long as I have been a CEO. In one company I had a female CFO. At MySQL the head of our corporate sales division was a female. I had a female successor when I left Sun.

Unfortunately it is difficult to find female exec candidates. For this reason I engaged in Astia in order to help female execs on their career paths. They have great entrepreneurs there.

At Eucalyptus our executive team is still all male, but I continue to look for female execs. In the company at large, we have about 12% women. Not a high percentage, but a good start.

I can also note that while I am all for hiring females into executive and all other roles, I also don’t worry if the mix isn’t 50-50. My goal is not to make women men or men women. My goal is simply to enable anyone with the interest and the potential to pursue a successful business career.

Kind regards,


P.S. I can confirm that I am a Swedish-speaking Finn exactly like Magnus Lundberg apparently is. Unfortunately I don’t know him.”

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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