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Sheryl Sandberg ignites a firestorm as she calls on working women to ‘lean in’

Facebook executive aims to rewrite the rules while raising an uncomfortable subject


 
Time To Man Up

EMPICS Entertainment/Keystone Press

Last year, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and Forbes’ tenth most powerful woman in the world, took her son and daughter, aged 7 and 5, to a conference on eBay CEO John Donahoe’s private jet. Midway through the flight she noticed her daughter scratching her head and discovered “small white things” crawling in both children’s hair. Panic ensued as Sandberg hustled her children off the plane filled with Silicon Valley’s elite and then missed a business dinner to de-lice her kids in her hotel bathroom.

Anecdotes like this inform the central thesis of Sandberg’s upcoming book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which Sandberg calls her “sort of feminist manifesto” on how more women can reach the upper echelons of corporate leadership. This much is clear: even if Sandberg might have it all—a top job, an eight-figure salary, a husband and two kids and now a book she’s aiming to turn into a social movement—she’s not always doing it perfectly.

Fifty years after Betty Friedan exposed the plight of American housewives in The Feminine Mystique, Sandberg contends that women are still too focused on being the ultimate wives and mothers, only to end up sacrificing their careers on the altar of work-life balance. It’s destined to be a losing battle and one of the main reasons, Sandberg says, that so few women are making it to the top of the corporate ladder. “We compare our efforts at work to that of our colleagues, usually men,” she writes. “Then we compare our efforts at home to the full-time mothers who dedicate themselves solely to their families.” Men, on the other hand, tend not to let concerns over work-life balance drive early career decisions.

At the heart of Sandberg’s argument is not that women are making the wrong choice when they pick family over career, but that many women start their careers assuming they’ll have to make the choice in the first place, often dialling back their efforts at work years before they’re even planning to have children. That anticipatory pullback becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The result, Sandberg says, is women end up settling for jobs below their capabilities, and set themselves up for failure when they do start families and are forced to sacrifice time with their kids for unfulfilling careers. “By not finding ways to stretch herself in the years leading up to motherhood, she has fallen behind,” she writes. “She may wonder why she is working for someone (usually a man) who has less experience than she does. Or she may wonder why she does not have the exciting new project or the corner office. At this point she probably scales back her ambitions even further since she no longer believes that she can get to the top.”

“The irony,” she adds, “is that women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of the things they did to stay in the workforce.”

Her arguments have ignited a firestorm of criticism that Sandberg is yet another member of the privileged elite blaming women for their own failure to get ahead. Granted, Sandberg is an easy target. She is worth an estimated $500 million, employs “a small army of household help” and lists Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington as friends in Lean In’s acknowledgements. Or as Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who caused a stir when she wrote about quitting as Hillary Clinton’s director of policy planning to spend more time with her kids, put it: Sandberg is both “superhuman and rich.”

But the list of women who are supposedly setting impossibly high standards for working mothers is growing. Lately it includes Marissa Mayer, who took over as Yahoo! Inc. CEO while pregnant and then announced she would take a mere two-week maternity leave. Mayer’s comments to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s conference that the CEO job has been “more fun” and that caring for a newborn is “way easier than everyone made it out to be” only served to inflame her critics—the straight-A student who complains to the rest of her class that the homework assignments are too easy. Her recent decision to cancel Yahoo’s work-from-home policies while building herself a nursery next to her office has officially cemented her image as anti-family villain, even though former Yahoo employees have come out to say the company’s overly relaxed culture was one of the major reasons it was losing ground to its competitors.

But the criticism ignores the ways in which women like Sandberg and Mayer are rewriting the rules on what it means to be a working mother, both by leading by example and because going public with their stories raises the uncomfortable subject of the ways in which women are responsible for their own career successes—and failures.

Sandberg’s advice, while written for a general audience, isn’t aimed at the single moms struggling at minimum-wage jobs. Her message is largely targeted at women like herself: high achievers who graduate top of their class from Harvard Business School, have their choice of careers and the salaries to afford to housekeepers and personal shoppers while they climb the corporate ladder. These are the women, she says, who are choosing to opt out—and doing so long before they’re even forced to make the choice between career and family.

Feminists of the ’60s and ’70s believed that if women had access to the same educational opportunities and professional networks as their male counterparts, they would shatter the glass ceiling. But decades later, with professional programs like law and medicine often now graduating more women than men, many of the traditional barriers are gone. Yet women occupy a mere 17 per cent of board seats on Fortune 500 companies. The picture is even worse in Canada where, despite paid maternity benefits, women hold about 14.5 per cent of board seats on major companies, according to the 2012 Canadian Board Diversity Index. Moreover, nearly 40 per cent of Canadian public companies had no women on their boards, according to the women-in-business organization Catalyst. Even with government-subsidized daycare, Quebec fares no better. A 2011 study by Catalyst of boards of companies on the Financial Post 500 list found just 17.5 per cent of directors of Quebec’s largest firms were women, lower than in Manitoba and Nova Scotia. (Among the companies in Quebec with no women on the board is women’s clothing store Reitmans.)

Sandberg argues that it’s precisely the women most likely to make it to the corner office who are leaving the workforce—mainly because they’re typically married to high-earning men. Among the statistics she cites is a study that found that less than half of women who graduated from Harvard Business School in the 1990s were working full-time by 2007, and only 56 per cent of female Yale graduates were still working by the time they reached their 40s. In contrast, just 20 per cent of mothers with husbands who earn a middle-class wage are stay-at-home moms, she writes, compared to 40 per cent of mothers whose husbands earned the top five per cent of salaries.

That highly trained professional women in well-paying careers might opt to leave the workforce anyway is not something most Second Wave feminists envisioned. Yet these days jumping off the career track is still framed mostly in terms of a woman’s right to choose family over career in a debate that seems to have stalled.

“I’ve sat in on so many discussions of how women can get ahead and often it gets into this discussion of if you want to stay home, that’s fine and if you want to go to work that’s fine. But it’s a very circular discussion. We all agree that it’s super hard,” says Catherine McKenna, an internationally trained lawyer who left corporate law to start a non-profit after having children. “Women talk about it a lot. We all talk about it all the time. That doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere.”

Eight years ago McKenna left a job at Stikeman Elliott LLP in Ottawa to run Canadian Lawyers Abroad and the Banff Forum annual leadership conference. Although the move had more to do with her dream of running her own charitable organization than about work-life balance, McKenna began planning her career change while on maternity leave for the first of three children. She now juggles a third job, including teaching first-year graduate students at the Munk School of Global Affairs, which has allowed her to carve out the career she wants but with a more flexible schedule than corporate law since her husband, a former diplomat who also runs two non-profits, travels frequently. “If I write a book it’s going to be how to survive the baby years,” she says. “I see women who would be great doing whatever and now, because they took some years off to raise kids, they can’t get back in. I feel you have to hang in there somehow. You don’t have to be amazing, you just have to stay in it.”

The constant drive for perfection both at home and at work “is a killer,” agrees Ronnalee McMahon. She runs Lilith Professional, a Calgary-based mentoring program for women in traditionally male-dominated careers like law, engineering and finance and frequently meets young female professionals who are turning down assignments that could put them on the path to management because they’re worried about work-life balance. “They say going partner or going director or taking the next step into senior management is just not conducive to family and children,” she says. “Then you drill down and you find out they’re not even in a dating relationship.”

The problem with that attitude, she says, is that the first five years at a company are critical and by the time the woman actually has children and wants to focus on her career path, senior executives may have already decided to pass her over for promotion. “The danger is you get five years in [to the job] and you find out, guess what? That choice has been made for you,” she says. “It’s about preserving choice at all costs.”

What’s eluding many professional women, say several female executives, is a realistic understanding of what it actually takes to climb the corporate ladder. “I don’t think enough women look up,” says Betty DeVita, who became one of the few women in Canada to serve as both CEO and chairman of a major firm when she headed Citibank Canada. “They spend 90 or 100 per cent of their efforts on making sure they deliver on their responsibilities as opposed to say 80 per cent delivering on their responsibilities and the rest ensuring that they understand what their next job is and what do I want to aspire to and am I planning for it.”

Now president of MasterCard Canada, in 2000 DeVita was a regional manager at Citibank when she was tapped to manage the bank’s operations in Venezuela. Running a country-wide division was crucial to moving up the ranks and DeVita jumped at the chance. At the time, she had a four-year-old son and was pregnant with her daughter, a fact she didn’t tell her boss. Her husband quit his job to move and DeVita’s maternity leave was roughly a day long.

Looking back, DeVita calls the move a “risky decision,” but one that was critical to getting ahead. “I didn’t really analyze the risks and in this particular scenario it was good for me because I didn’t focus on them as a way to stop me from making a decision that was really, really helpful from a career perspective,” she says.

DeVita hired a nanny and says she manages the trade-off of less time with family by making sure she’s there to make the most important decisions. On the day she spoke with Maclean’s DeVita and her husband had just come from a parent-teacher conference at her daughter’s school. She had planned to stay home but ended up back at the office for three meetings.

Contracting out more of the household duties—to both hired help and husbands—is one of the common threads among successful women, who say that giving up these chores means more quality time with the kids. Stacey Mowbray, president and CEO of Second Cup, pays someone to do her grocery shopping and cook dinners so she can spend more time with her husband and two daughters, ages 18 and 15. Early on in her career, Mowbray says she turned to her mother and sisters to help with the children. “I don’t get to every soccer game, but I get to some and I get my work done,” she says. “We’re so focused on this as a women’s issue. But this is the new normal. We are all very busy.”

Not everyone can afford to hire nannies and personal shoppers, but Sandberg argues child care costs should be looked at the same way a student might look at going into debt to finance an education—as a career investment rather than an expense, since staying in the workforce full-time will usually mean more money and a more flexible schedule down the road.

“Some of the women that are advancing the quickest are women in underdeveloped countries,” says McMahon. “The reason is because they have supportive networks. Grandmas look after the babies while mom goes off to work.” In the First World, the idea of contracting out childcare, even for those who can afford it, is still a delicate subject. It evokes the image of the cold and distant mother who offloads her maternal duties to another woman, often one from a developing country. Then there’s the fear of what the neighbours will think, or that the children will develop a closer bond with their nanny than their mother.

Sandberg’s friends warned her to brace herself for the first time her infant son was upset and reached for his nanny instead of his mother. When it happened, Sandberg says her husband told her that forming an attachment with his caregiver was good for their son’s development. “I understood his logic, especially in retrospect, but at the time, it hurt like hell,” she writes. “Guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers.”

She argues that mothers actually spend more time these days with their children than they did 40 years ago. In the 1970s, Sandberg writes, stay-at-home moms spent an average of 11 hours a week tending to their children, compared to 17 hours today. Working mothers now spend an average of 11 hours with children, the equivalent to a stay-at-home mom in the ’70s. What’s changed, she writes, is that parents are now expected to be more involved with their children’s daily lives, a trend known as “intensive mothering.” Working hours have gotten longer too, making it even more difficult to live up to both expectations.

Not all of Sandberg’s advice is easily followed, even for the most career-minded women. She cautions women to choose carefully when picking a husband since having a supportive partner is critical for women hoping to rise through the corporate ranks. Her husband, David Goldberg, quit his job as the head of Yahoo Music and moved the headquarters of his new company, SurveyMonkey, from Portland, Ore., to Palo Alto, Calif., after Sandberg took the job at Facebook.

DeVita’s husband, Tim, is the primary caregiver and has quit his job more than once so the family could move for her career. McMahon says virtually all of the female executives she meets in Calgary’s male-dominated oil and gas sector have husbands who have at some point been stay-at-home dads.

“I still get asked, ‘How can [women] combine motherhood and career?’ ” feminist author Gloria Steinem told Stanford University’s student newspaper last year. “I tell them, ‘Until men are asking that same question, you can’t.’ ”

Sandberg may set a high standard for the image of a working mom—she spent her first maternity “leave” working from home because of how eager her male colleagues were to volunteer to take over her responsibilities and spread rumours that she might not return to work. She pumped breast milk during conference calls and held her first and last meetings of the day in different buildings so no one knew she only worked nine to five. But by talking openly about the ways she felt she had to function at work, she’s raising issues that have persisted long after women have broken down most of the other barriers to having a successful career. And given the fierce public reaction from several of her fellow female Ivy League grads, it remains a touchy subject.

The strategies women need to embrace to solve the decades-old dilemma of the glass ceiling sound an awful lot like the ones men have used forever to get ahead—be ambitious at work and find a supportive spouse to help with the kids—and certainly they are much more retrograde than feminists might have imagined. For a movement in desperate need of a jump start, it’s a startling rallying cry.


 

Sheryl Sandberg ignites a firestorm as she calls on working women to ‘lean in’

  1. I don’t see this as a rallying cry at all. Find a husband who can be the nanny or deal with the guilt of another woman raising your child. Give me a break. Women can have it all on their own terms but not all at once. Who says the glass ceiling is all it’s cracked up to be anyway.

  2. Women have been treated as inferior for over 2000 years, and they’ve certainly internalized the idea.

    The idea that women are equal has been around for about 40 years.

    It takes awhile to change a belief system, a way of life, a culture……

    Did anyone think it was all going to go smoothly without any problems?

  3. Since women have been more prevalent in decision making, the world has taken a turn—for the worse. Maybe, what should happen, is let women control everything…and, see what happens. Kind of like the Obama experiment.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • If you think the women in history have been enlightened, pragmatic, and all around good you need serious history lessons, i.e., Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, Karla Homolka, Queen Mary the firsst (Bloody Mary), Isabella the first of Spain, Beverley Gail Allit, Belle Gunness, Marry Ann Cotton, Ilse Koch “the Witch of Buchenwald”, Irma Grese “The Bitch of Belsen”, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Bonnie Parker, Jiang Qing, Cleopatra, …. there are more. Winnie Mandela is under suspicion for a number of human rights abuses, then there is the atrocious female political and social “leaders” such as Sarah Palin, Kim Campbell, and who can forget how Margaret Thatcher doubled child-poverty in the UK by implementing Regan’omics in drag (because putting money in the pockets of the wealthy is a great idea), Chief Theresa Spence, and look at the ridiculous things going on in Alberta and BC with the females in power there.

        Time for you to crack a book.

        • Funny, I don’t recall saying anything like that.

          There have been brilliant women and stupid women.

          Brilliant men and stupid men.

          Human beings, good and bad.

          What does it say about you that you blame everything on women?

          • You imply that all the “… centuries of torture and war and famine …” are the result of men. My point is that there are some pretty evil women out there too.

          • Gosh yes….the… um….well I’ll be gentle and say….less than 1% that have even been in a position to cause torture, war or famine….much less those that have done so..!

            See, this is why women’s studies are important. So people don’t make untrue remarks about no women composers…..yet think there were tons of women war lords!

      • This comment was deleted.

        • John was the one who made the racist sexist comment, so go talk to him.

  4. Don’t forget, there are millions of working fathers out there too. If you think that it is only mothers who are doing the child care you are sadly mistaken.

    • I actually thought the article was fair about pointing to stay at home dads supporting high achieving women.

      • My point is that there are plenty of men who juggle work and family too – yet no one cares about the strain on them

        • Oh, ok. The Globe, I think, had an interesting article a few weeks ago suggesting significant shifts in domestic responsibility in households over the past 10 years, directly challenging the premise that men are free of domestic constraints in the workplace.

          • “What about the menz?!” – Mr. Ruff
            Honestly, can not one article about someone else exist?
            No one is saying that men dont take care of their kids as well as women in a single parent scenario. What is being said is Women have a tough time making it in the work place. Add on top the necessity to be the only gender able to carry a child to term in their bellies, the task of making it in the corporate world becomes that much harder for women. But it can be done and should be done. There is still a great deal of conditioning and discouragement going on towards women entering a professional carreer from all angles, which is changing (to say the least).

  5. The editorial decision to run with the cover image and title “Man Up” and the associated caption was disappointing. I truly hope Maclean’s listens to the swelling criticism on Facebook, Twitter, and in their letters inbox and realises what an error in judgement this call was.

    Turning to the article itself, it’s hardly balanced journalism. Pointing out someone’s argument and then pointing out a possible criticism to that argument is not ‘balance.’ There is plenty of evidence out there that could have given meat to this article, but as written it’s a pile of assertions made by someone trying to sell a book. It’s barely above the status of an advertorial.

    Though I could go point by point, I’ll be brief and stick to one of the most irksome passages: “Feminists of the ’60s and ’70s believed that if women had access to the same educational opportunities and professional networks as their male counterparts, they would shatter the glass ceiling. But decades later, with professional programs like law and medicine often now graduating more women than men, many of the traditional barriers are gone.”

    Riiiiight. So the only ‘traditional barrier’ was education level in professions? Tell that to lawyers like Jamie Laskis who did ‘man up’ but couldn’t break through a wall of men who think ‘Harvard University is filled with pretty women “pretending to get a legal education”‘ and who ‘hated working with women because they get pregnant and leave’.

    As a woman who was, just two weeks ago, asked in a job interview for a management position in a male-dominated field, whether I thought my gender might cause any “issues” in the team, I can tell you we have a long way to go. Placing the onus solely at women’s feet for ‘manning up’ is not going to solve systemic problems that have been demonstrated to exist. Here is a good introduction to the literature that is completely absent in Tamsin’s article: http://katatrepsis.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/sexism-is-a-horrible-and-depressing-fact/

    • Just curious, but what was your answer to the interviewer?
      Personally, my own answer would probably get my resume deep-sixed had I been in the situation — “Normally I’d say no, because most decent companies don’t hire sexist pricks, but given that you’ve asked….” — so I wonder how you handled it.

      • I wish I could say I said something pithy, but I wasn’t expecting the question. I said I had no concerns, but the question impacted heavily on my decision to turn down the job offer when it was given. I wish I’d thrown the question back at them..

    • No comment on the interview question. But I think the article was meant to be a commentary and review of a popular new book, rather than a scholary attempt to get to the truth, and particularly don’t think it suggested that education was the only barrier to workplace equality.

      • So… you agree this piece isn’t actually journalism then? I didn’t mean it should be a scholarly attempt at the truth. But is expecting the cover story of a national magazine that purports to be hard-hitting current affairs coverage to be well-researched, well-supported, and thoughtful asking too much?

        • Is expecting a book review not to be a book review asking too much? Is expecting a book review not to be featured on the cover asking too much? Is expecting a magazine cover not to have a provocative headline asking too much?

          • Perhaps in the print version, it is clearer that this is a “lifestyle” piece. Online, the little breadcrumb in the upper left of the article space doesn’t scream “book review! purely subjective! NOT a think piece!”

  6. Like some of the comments below I was surprised by the cover story, “Man Up”, wondering why are we still talking about this and comparing ourselves to men? Men are men. Women are women. As human beings we have some cross over in our commonalities but this whole notion of women needing to be one way or another is ridiculous. As long as we continue the conversation of how society thinks women should be in all the roles we play, the longer the inequality will persist. As women, we need to pay attention to this because maybe that is still part of the gender inequality plan. As long as women continue to fight over ridiculous semantics amongst ourselves we will never reach true equality. Every other week there is debate over the “Failures” of women to not break through the glass ceiling. Or there are debates over whether she is “mom” enough or “wife” enough or “sexy”enough or “thin” enough or “smart” enough or “tough” enough (Sadly, this debate is generally between women against other women) UGH! As a mother to 2 little girls, I am teaching them that who they are, just as they are, is ENOUGH! As a CEO of my own company, I am astonished at how my gender has nothing to do with the capabilities, if anything it is a HUGE asset! If you want to be a CEO be one. If you want to stay at home with your kids, go for it. If you want to have middle management position and not reach for the “corner office”, great too. None of these are right or wrong decisions. Because we live in this great country we have so many choices, sadly, many of our sisters in other countries do not have the same opportunity. Do with your life what you want to do and stop defending it. Don’t try to be Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Meyer, just be YOU!

    • Absolutely agree.

      It was supposed to be about choice. Women got to make their own choices rather than having to fit in the straitjacket society made for them.

  7. The article talks about alpha women who quit early because they can, owing to having married alpha husbands, and then alpha women who have managed to succeed because they have married supportive husbands. I’m not sure if that was unintentional counterintuitive dating advice.
    More generally, as unsolicited advice from the perspective of a household with two busy professionals, when it comes to daycare and nannies and sitters and takeout and delivered groceries and leaning on family: do it. Spend the money. Ask for help. Raise your hand. Trust yourself to find resources to replace you at home when work’s demands seem overwhelming.

  8. Sadly i feel like since certain women wanted to have equal rights and equal opportunities this new age thinking has had a snowball effect in a way that has countered most of the choice benefits. There are those of us that would relish the idea of being a stay at home mom, and who would love to feel as though we excel at something in life because we cannot aford to go to College nevermind Harvard or Yale. Some of us even think that to go out to work is a forced upon us issue due the fact that many families now days simply cannot make ends meet on one income. I for one feel that it was a mistake on many levels that women pushed for the right to go earn a wage. It’s even biblical that the MAN is to be the bread winner, meaning that God intended for the MAN to look after the financial sircumstances. The women of today in many cases, (not all) work ten times harder than the man. Many days i spend going out to work, put a full day in come home to my kids who want my attention, a meal still needing to be made, housework that still has to be done and that is ever falling behind, farm chores yet to do, and to top it all off when my husband got home from his full time time job he’s walked in the door, plunked himself down on the couch and had himself a nap while waiting for his superwife to come home and help him with his needs. To be quite frank I don’t get paid enough to make this termoil worth while, but as long as the bills keep coming guess what???

  9. As the father of an 18 month old, the one thing that seems missing here is an actual representation of how intense it is to miss so much of the child’s time. Although I am really devoted to what I do, being with my child makes it all seem less important. What I mean is that making more money, or representing myself as a woman in the work place, or making sure that the next gen home printer is even better seems random and really beside the point when you really see all the things going on in life. I’m not saying that it is an absolute value, but that in these articles it is way down the line in importance from where it seems to me it should be. The entire family/children-unfriendly world needs to change, and women in the corner office is not going to do it. Not unless being present in a family (not just the most important decisions!?) gets a whole lot more important. Perhaps 25% of every office floor needs to be nursery, daycare and kids’ lounge.

    • I agree whole heartedly. It’s a signigicant cultural shift to imagine workplaces and work culture recognizing the value of being present in the family (with onsite childcare and results oriented job recognition). From the article, it seems Catherine McKenna started her non-profits to accomplish it.

  10. Absolutely agree with first 5 years in career are critical to set the tone of your career. Both my husband and I juggled demanding jobs while juggling the kids. We rose to mid-level in our corporations. Our level was cast by the fact both of us worked, only those with a stay home or part-time spouse made it to higher levels. But at the end of the day, we had two solid pensions, could retire at 55, and friends who made it to the top without a full-time working spouse have overall a lower combined pension and are still working. Making it to the top, and only one parent spending time with kids, may not be the overall winning situation to strive for.

  11. i was a stay at home mom in the 80’s. I was judged by other women because of it. I think “women’s LIB” ( what a wrong word that is) is all crap. First of all, there was no choice to be had. It was decided that it was a”cookie cutter” image for every women. If you didn’t have a job outside the house, well “other women” would tell me how lucky I was, to not to have to work. It’s the kids that paid a hefty price, latch keyed, guilt parented, not behaved. They ended up being of the last ones on the list of priorities, because feminism said so! My best memories of my childhood were, when getting home from school, supper was on the table waiting for us, and the nice smell of a clean house. This is when I decided that this what i wanted for my future kids. if it was to start all over, i would do the same, they make me so proud. “you don’t raise children with money, you raise them with values”

  12. “Yahoo employees have come out to say the company’s overly relaxed
    culture was one of the major reasons it was losing ground to its
    competitors.”

    Um, what does Yahoo actually _do_?
    I’ve had no reason to go to yahoo.xxx since the late 90s (when they were still a curated list of links).

  13. great article. it is also a very profeminist article because it is a great opinion as to how women can achieve.

    I love the man up analogy because men are always told to man up… therefore if women want to get on top, they have to do the same!

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