03/14/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

It's Time for the State to 'Lean In' for Gender Equality

Sheryl Sandberg's new manifesto, Lean In, urges women to engage in a concerted social effort to bring other women up to a more mixed-sex corporate hierarchy. Sandberg rightly targets inequality -- women are practically invisible at the upper echelon of corporate America. Sandberg is also correct to urge a cultural shift to diminish men's near-exclusive domination in the corporate world. I fear, however, that her efforts are doomed to fail because they ignore how our legal system establishes rules to stack men into high-power jobs and women onto the "mommy track."

We all know the statistics behind Sandberg's argument -- women indeed are largely excluded from upper management in the corporate sector. In the rare instances when women break through the glass ceiling, the corporate sector judges them more harshly than their male counterparts, and I'd argue this was the case with Carly Fiorina. Given that women have made up half or more of the graduates of top professional schools for awhile, it would seem that structural discrimination blocks them from breaking into the upper echelon. Blacks and other minorities have similarly weak numbers. Corporate competence has been defined in ways that exclude women and minorities.

Sandberg's laudable efforts overlook the central role played by public policy and the relative inefficacy of women-centered efforts. First, private sector efforts seem likely to achieve a limited impact. Reversing centuries of corporate sexism will not happen just because women wish it. Scandinavia provides two examples of public policy that would have an enormous effect in favoring women's elevation in the corporate hierarchy.

First, parental leave in the U.S., like in Sweden, is sex-neutral. The similarity ends there. The United States requires leave but does not mandate that it be paid, making heterosexual families more likely to have (often) lesser-paid women stay at home, cutting off their career prospects. Men who take leave are viewed as unmotivated or even disloyal to their employer. In short, the United States' thin neutrality has no enforcement mechanism, leaving us in the same spot we were in decades ago with regard to gender equity in the workplace. By contrast, Sweden incentives men to take leave -- it accords more leave to families where each parent takes at least three months. Family leave in Sweden, like in almost every other country in the world other than the United States, is paid.

Second, quotas also play a role in shifting women into positions of power. In 2003, Norway adopted a quota setting a forty percent floor for either sex on corporate boards. France followed suit nearly eight years late. Both laws adopt the most radical means of diversifying the sex of board members with an absolute mandate. Quotas confront many criticisms: they overlook the diversity of sex identity, ignore other kinds of diversity, force boards to include people who lack necessary experience or skills and take away board autonomy. My research conducted in 2011, involving interviews of a male a female member of each of over a quarter of France's top corporate boards, reflects that it is unlikely that substantive decisions will shift solely by virtue of women's presence on the board. Although boards have far less power than executive committees, they do provide an opening for breaking the exclusion of women.

What makes Scandinavia's efforts so effective is that they focus on all sexes, not just women. Men have to change as well, and only the state can make this happen. Efforts to foster sex equality in the corporate hierarchy must move beyond an "up with women" strategy to focus on men's role. Little evidence supports a theory that men deliberately exclude women from positions of power; indeed, I would imagine that many male leaders play an active role in attempting to promote women. However, as a structural matter, men over the course of generations have defined workplace competence around their abilities. This definition pits ambition and loyalty against a commitment to one's home life. To show one's interest and ability in ascending the ladder, one must be available at any hour for work, as Anne-Marie Slaughter has argued. Indeed, much of the wage differential between men and women is attributable to whether the individual has a spouse to run the home, not to any essential sex difference. It is for that reason that some Scandinavian laws bar companies from holding meetings outside of the regular workday, precisely to foster parental responsibilities.

Public awareness plays a role, as Sandberg says, but the state can steer it toward equity. Swedish public service campaigns focus on encouraging men to take on more family responsibilities. When men do, the standard for performance shifts to allow women and men more room to live fuller lives as parents. Efforts to get women to "lean in" should also take on getting men to "lean out" so that the workplace norm becomes one that complements family life. As the Supreme Court said in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1973), there should be no "fixed notions concerning the roles and abilities of males and females" embodied in the application of the law. This ideal permeates civil society: either sex should be allowed to perform every role in society. As a distributive matter, however, this remains an elusive goal.

Recently, two male Norwegian cabinet members' wives had babies. They both took family leave -- it would have been socially unacceptable for them to refrain from taking leave. That kind of shift in men's values is what will transform the workplace. Only the state can make this change happen. We do not need to adopt Scandinavian policy in its entirety, but we do need to be aware of how the inaction of the U.S. government leaves us stuck in a 1970 workplace context. Given how entrenched sexist roles are, only if the state "leans in" to shift public policy and expectations will people be permitted to contribute to work and family, without regard to one's sex.