March 12 (Bloomberg) -- To get somewhere in this circular debate over women and work, we need to get three women in the same room: Anne-Marie Slaughter, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg.
Slaughter quit her high-ranking job at the State Department to return to academia at Princeton University and wrote a long magazine article about how women can’t have it all. Mayer is the new mother and chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc. who dissed maternity leave as if it were for sissies and called all employees back to the office or else.
And then there is Sandberg, Facebook Inc.’s chief operating officer, whose new book tells women how to be as successful as she is -- or, alternatively, why they’re jerks for not being as successful as she is. The takeaway from “Lean In,” which is already a best-seller, is that you can succeed if you would just stop undermining yourself, assume a better posture, raise your hand and speak up.
If it were that easy, there would be no market for Sandberg’s book 50 years after Betty Friedan laid down the first marker. Now there is a heavy shelf of advice tomes and dispatches from the mommy wars, yet a few truths remain self-evident: Women have babies, usually during their peak career-climbing years. There are only 24 hours in a day, a fact no legislation can change (although thanks for the Family and Medical Leave Act). And though men become fathers, they don’t feel -- operative word feel -- the same pull to be at home with their children that the women who bear them do.
Not that Sandberg’s from-on-high perspective isn’t interesting. Who could quibble with her admonition to shed the self-doubt that holds so many women back? As she notes, women in her class at Harvard are much less accomplished than the men; only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. She gives us a glimpse into the boardroom, and it turns out that when the door closes, they are saying exactly what you might expect: They find assertive women bossy and assertive men inspiring, and see female likeability as inversely proportional to female success.
“Don’t leave before you leave” is a Sandberg aphorism that makes sense. It means, don’t hold back trying to make partner or become regional sales manager because someday you might get pregnant. Your employer already believes men are much less likely to bail than you are. Don’t play along.
Much of the criticism of Sandberg’s book is that she writes as if her advice is useful to all women when it is helpful mostly to the privileged. When Sandberg was on a lower rung, she did what so many mothers do: Snuck out at 5:30 p.m. to have dinner with her children.
She sneaks no more; since her well-paid days at Google Inc., dinner has been ready when she gets home. It’s just a financial fact of life that inside the household of a woman at the top is an army of nannies. This doesn’t make Sandberg a bad mother but an efficient one.
Sandberg has something to say in this short book and in her many interviews, but her elevated position makes her a target. It isn’t her fault she’s beautiful and rich. Still, she could have left out how she deals with problems that beset us all. While many a mother has had to make an unscheduled pickup when the school nurse calls to say she has found lice, most of us have to get there on our own and aren’t picking out the nits later on the corporate jet.
And there are contradictions. Sandberg may push women to “lean in” and say more at the conference table, but she enlisted a career coach to teach her how to speak up less. If even Sandberg has to sit back and shut up sometimes, what about the rest of us?
Her advice on having a supportive spouse, meanwhile, is both obvious and impractical when marriage is a crapshoot all its own. Yes, get the cool bad boys out of your system early in favor of the stable, bread-winning, fold-the-laundry guy. In her “60 Minutes” interview, Sandberg’s husband, a Master of the Universe himself, comes across as an ideal mate. Her test for finding one is not for the faint of heart: See how he reacts to canceling a date because you have to work. Then test him further to see if he will drop everything and accompany you to Sao Paulo on a business trip.
To that, I say, stick with Mom’s needlepoint philosophy: A good man is hard to find. Don’t make it harder.
All this said, I give Sandberg credit. She doesn’t really have to struggle with the work-family balance but it is considerate of her to say that she does, because that makes such concern more acceptable for the rest of us. She even calls herself a “feminist,” still a fighting word in some quarters.
By contrast, Marissa Mayer, Sandberg’s Silicon Valley sister, supports findings from my own personal survey of female executives who say their worst bosses are women. Mayer rejects the term feminist and prefers to play on the unlevel field with the Big Boys. When she took the CEO job, she announced she was going to “work through” her maternity leave. Postpartum, she boasted that her new baby was so easy, she doesn’t know why everyone makes such a fuss about motherhood. The fussing might be from the mothers without a nursery next to their office who needed the flextime she just banned.
Somewhere between Slaughter’s quitting and Mayer’s denial, there’s a demilitarized zone. Sandberg writes from there and means well. Let’s thank her for staying on the home team.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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