Down to Business: ‘A female chief executive is still big news’

Down to Business: ‘A female chief executive is still big news’

Emma Macan Roberts, senior global lead of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Organisation., talks to Candice Krieger about the obstacles women still face in the workplace

Emma Macan Robert
Emma Macan Robert

 Forget smacking into the glass ceiling – it’s the ‘broken rung’ in the management ladder that’s stopping women getting to the very top of their careers.  

Facebook chief executive Sheryl Sandberg famously says: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on.”

That’s exactly what echoed in Emma Macan Robert’s mind when she became the first international hire by the Facebook’s chief’s Lean In Organisation.

Lean In is a global community dedicated to helping women achieve their ambitions. Among many other accolades, Sandberg is author of the best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, aimed at empowering women and encouraging them to “lean in” to their careers and aspirations. She credits the “rocket ship” quote as the best career advice she received from then Google boss Eric Schmidt about taking a job at Google.

Macan Roberts, 30, was working as customer director at multinational beauty company, Coty (following its acquisition of Procter & Gamble), when her big offer came in 2017. She “seized the opportunity” and became the Lean In Europe Program Lead. She spent just over a year growing its presence across Europe.

In January she was made the Senior Global Program Lead and this month moved to the organisation’s headquarters in Palo Alto. She heads up their worldwide growth strategy, managing a team across three continents and overseeing a community of 44,000 Lean In Circles (where small groups of women meet and network) in 172 countries.

Passionate about helping women to achieve their career ambitions, Macan Roberts says there are still significant barriers for women in the workplace. For long before smacking into any glass ceiling, women hit obstacles trying to reach the first rung of the management ladder.

This “broken rung” results in more women getting stuck at entry level and fewer women becoming managers. Subsequently, there are significantly fewer women to advance to higher levels.

Although the research was carried out in America, Macan Roberts says many of the findings are universal. She explains: “I’m not saying the glass ceiling isn’t a problem, but what we don’t have enough of is the pipeline.

“It’s still an exciting news story when a woman becomes the CEO of a large organisation and we want to get to a place where it’s not. But part of the reason is down to entry level. More women than men are completing higher education in the UK and the US, but actually it’s more men than women that are going into graduate employment and into more skilled jobs, so right out of the gate, men are getting a head start.

“And if you look at the data around first promotion to manager, it’s about two-thirds men and one third women. From that point, women are getting held back and not catching up.

“Closing that first step up to manager is crucial to build a sustainable pipeline.”

Another key obstacle, she says, is the “everyday discriminations women face such as “microagressions. This could be being spoken over in a meeting, having your competence questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior. In isolation they are bearable but it becomes a story of ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’.  Research shows women who experience microaggressions are far more likely to think about leaving their job.”

Emma Macan Roberts

Head girl of St Albans High School, Macan Roberts, whose family were members of Finchley Reform Synagogue, has always made the most of opportunities that came her way. She achieved First Class Honours in Geography from the London School of Economics. In her second year she did an internship at Procter & Gamble and was offered a job off the back of it. She spent six years there, including as UK Customer Director for Boots, and in 2016 was awarded Procter & Gamble’s number one global salesperson.  It was the 2013 book Lean In that inspired her to get involved in the organisation.

“I did not experience anything negative in terms of gender policies or the working environment at Procter & Gamble, but I was becoming aware of some gender biases that I had internalised from society as a whole. Reading the book was the first time I was able to give language to the abstract emotions I was feeling. I realised there was a term for how I felt – ‘imposter syndrome’ – the idea that even though you’re doing a great job, and people are telling you you’re doing it well, it’s your own self-doubt holding you back. It’s a feeling of inferiority, and when I started talking to my friends, they said they felt it too.”

Macan Roberts, a previous recipient of the Finnart House School scholarship for Jewish pupils, which enabled her to fund her studies for university at the London School of Economics, set up the Lean In Supper Club in London. Within a year it grew to more than 500 members, becoming the largest Lean In Circle in Europe. She attracted the attention of Sandberg when the Facebook chief came to London as part of a book tour. “I got to meet the team and they were looking for someone to hire in Europe.”

Colleagues: Sheryl Sandberg with Mark Zuckerberg

She has since travelled with Sandberg to Dublin, Tel Aviv, Berlin and Rome. What is the Facebook chief like to work with? “It’s amazing how committed she is to the cause. Wherever she is travelling in the world, she will go and meet the Lean In community. And it’s in her free time – it’s not her day job. The thing I respect the most is how someone with such a global platform is using her voice to raise awareness of this issue.”

Several sectors remain male-lead. Women make up a low percentage of the technology industry with STEM and politics also lacking female representation. “As jobs become more STEM focused, it’s important we teach girls these skill from an early age and showcase role models so they know it’s a viable career,” says Mrs Macan Roberts. “We are building AI technology and we need diverse perspectives at the table when we do. And in the UK only about 30 percent of cabinet posts are held by women – no reason why it shouldn’t be 50 percent. No sector has reached equality. I see great examples of leaders taking the right action. I see the power of women coming together to drive change.” Emma Macan Roberts is certainly one of them.

  •   Lean In is an initiative of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation. See:




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