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
Dec 02, 2011; New York, USA; Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg makes announcement with Mayor Bloomberg - New York. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, speaks during a news conference in New York City on December 2, 2011. Facebook announced that New York will be the center of Facebook’s new engineering technology initiative in 2012. Facebook, the world’s largest social networking company, is expected to file for an IPO in April, and a public offering could reach a valuation of up to 00 billion and raise 0 billion. Photo by Dennis Van Tine/ABACAUSA.COM URN:12212971. Mandatory Credit: Photo by ABACA USA/EMPICS Entertainment/KEYSTONE Press © Copyright 2011 by EMPICS Entertainment
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.