Are Many Female Execs Bad Role Models?

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Female execs in finance fear they haven't done enough to make their industry more friendly to women, reports the New York Times. Could the same be said of tech? By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

It's wonderful when women reach the top of traditionally male-dominated industries, but do they have a responsibility to make the climb easier for the women coming up after them?

That's the question posed in a recent New York Times DealBook piece looking at the few women who have made it to the top of the finance industry. The article by Andrew Ross Sorkin quotes Irene Dorner, CEO of HSBC USA, as representative of these hard-charging female executives who have succeeded in the blood sport of finance without altering how the game is played for the next generation:

“The women at the top of organizations that I know will tell you that we think that we’ve made it because we were born the way we are and can play by these rules without feeling damaged by them,” Ms. Dorner said. “Or, we’ve learned how to play by these rules and use them to our own advantage.”

“I suspect that we were simply not very good role models.”…

Ms. Dorner says she wishes she had spoken up earlier, by trying to reform practices and pushing for diversity programs. In her position, she said, she could have helped change the underlying cultural bias against women.

With Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In and Marissa Mayer's decision to scrap telecommuting at Yahoo! generating lots of discussion about whether senior women have a responsibility to make tech more female-friendly, it appears this balancing act between rising in and reforming an industry isn't limited to Wall Street.

Both Mayer and Sandberg faced a backlash for accepting realities like long hours in the office or a preference for stereotypically male modes of self-promotion. Critics felt they were essentially doing exactly what Dorner did -- telling women to get better at acting like men rather than pushing to make things more accommodating for women. Others responded that men trying to rise aren't saddled with the expectation that they generate social change as well as corporate profits and that female execs should be judged by the same standards as their male counterparts.

Women 2.0 readers: Do you think its an unfair burden to expect women not only to win at the game but also simultaneously try to change how it's played? 

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel. Photo credit: Fortune Live Media via Flickr