Waiting for Superwoman

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book is a useful guide for becoming the next Sheryl Sandberg. What about the rest of us?

By Allison Pearson


In 2003 two professors at Columbia Business School and New York University gave their students a case study to test attitudes about gender in the workplace. Half the students got the real-life story of Heidi Roizen, who became a successful venture capitalist by using “her out-going personality and ... vast personal and professional network.” The other half received exactly the same study, but with one vital difference: The name Heidi was changed to Howard.

Both groups of students decided that Heidi and Howard were equally competent, but it turned out they liked Howard a whole lot better. Even though Heidi and Howard were the same person acting in the same way and getting the same results, Heidi was perceived as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

Poor Heidi. Smart, superdiligent, and go-getting, the gal’s got just one problem she can’t overcome: She has ovaries. If a man is successful, both genders tend to like him. High-achieving women, not so much.

What is it about females and power? To be specific, why are our highflying girls still falling like Icarus when they get too close to the sun? This is the fiendish dilemma that Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, addresses in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A forthright, if often confused, meditation on sexism, the book has attracted more than its share of prepublication hostility from people resentful that a Silicon Valley überfemale worth $500 million would dare to address the problems of Everywoman. I don’t think anyone actually used the words “back to your palace, bitch,” but that’s been the tenor of the criticism, which has often come from women who had not done Sandberg the elementary courtesy of reading the book they claimed to hate.

That’s a pity because, frankly, women are desperately lacking savvy guides to the higher echelons of corporate life. Most of us have more of an idea about social grooming habits among primates than what goes on in the boardroom of a multibillion-dollar company, although some would claim those two male-bonding sessions are not so very different. Sandberg isn’t the first writer to observe that brainy girls believe that, if they work insanely hard, virtue will have its own reward and promotion is guaranteed. (It won’t, and it isn’t.) What’s new is her insistence that women are up against gender stereotypes so powerfully ingrained that we should work with and not against them.

Here’s the catch: To be successful, a woman has to act like a man; but if she acts like a man instead of a nurturing people-pleaser, she’ll be disliked and won’t succeed. “We sense this punishment for success,” says Sandberg, who believes it causes women to “put ourselves down before others can.”

Any woman can relate to that. I once got a call from a TV producer asking me to appear on BBC’s Question Time, Britain’s top current affairs show. At some length, I found myself explaining what a terrible guest I would be. My knowledge of economics was hazy, my grasp of foreign affairs so dubious that I was likely to get the West Bank confused with NatWest Bank. I just didn’t know enough; it would be embarrassing. The female producer sighed heavily: “Every woman I approach says that.” I asked if a man had ever turned down the chance to be on the show. Yes — but only one in seven years. Every single woman the producer approached, no matter how eminent, said no.

Sandberg herself, while at Harvard Business School, was named a Henry Ford scholar for having the highest first-year academic record, a prize she shared with six male students. Unlike the other winners, she didn’t make her achievement public. “Being at the top of the class may have made life easier for my male peers, but it would have made my life harder,” she writes with the candor and pragmatism that run through her book like a thread of steel.

Some of her advice will appall more traditional feminists. In a chapter called “Success and Likability,” she suggests that women in the workplace should be “relentlessly pleasant” and always use the communal “we” instead of “I.” Unlike men, Sandberg says, women have to justify their requests. L’Oréal’s smiling slogan of female empowerment, “Because I’m worth it,” will get you nowhere, ladies. “Because my manager suggested I talk with you about my compensation” might do the trick.

“My hope,” Sandberg writes, “is that we won’t have to play by these archaic rules forever and that eventually we can all be ourselves.” That time will only come, she says, if there are enough women at the boardroom table to change the culture from within — and when there are enough men at the kitchen table to relieve their wives of responsibility for child care and household chores so women can compete on an equal footing for the top jobs.

Lean In focuses on many impediments to equality in the workplace: the tyranny of niceness, the paradox of needing to help women succeed without treating them any differently than men. I enjoyed Sandberg’s brisk dismissal of the received wisdom that tells ambitious young women they should get a mentor. “Searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming,” snaps Sandberg. Excel first, she insists, and mentors will come to you. And Sandberg is absolutely right to highlight the obscenity of new mothers having to claim, in most parts of the U.S., something called “sickness and disability” pay when there’s nothing less sick or disabled on this earth than a mother and her beautiful newborn.

It’s when she turns to the fraught question of how women struggle to balance their career and kids that Sandberg reminds you she breathes the rarefied atmosphere of Planet Zuckerberg. Taking a swipe at books like my own, she complains that if a female character is seen dividing her time between work and family, “she is almost always harried and guilt-ridden (think Sarah Jessica Parker in the film of I Don’t Know How She Does It).” Actually, the Kate Reddy character in I Don’t Know How She Does It is not an “unappealing stereotype” or negative role model as Sandberg claims. Kate spoke to millions of readers precisely because she was based on the true stories of hundreds of professional women I interviewed in person. If Sandberg had written her own book, instead of delegating to a “writing partner” and the battalion of researchers and minions listed in her marathon acknowledgments, then she might have avoided some basic misconceptions about female behavior.

Unaccountably, Sandberg claims that young women who know they want to be a mother make the mistake of taking their foot off the work accelerator years in advance. “The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in,” she writes. My own findings suggest that, far from leaning back, young women are so focused on reaching senior level before they allow themselves the luxury of getting pregnant that they frequently ignore the clanging bell of the biological clock. Fertility clinics are full of women in their late thirties and forties who leaned in with every fiber of their being. Involuntary childlessness was the heartbreaking result — a major trend for professional women, and Sandberg doesn’t even mention it.

Maybe that’s because in the dressed-down industries of Silicon Valley it’s possible to do what Sandberg does and get back for dinner with the kids every night by leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. Try that on Wall Street, and you’d be fired faster than you can say, “Honey, I’m home.” A banker mom of three who wrote to me said, “In my office, you’d get more sympathy if you came out as a cocaine addict than if you admit you’ve got kids. The firm has a program for drug addicts, but unfortunately motherhood is a lifelong and incurable condition.”

Like Rachel Berry in Glee, Sandberg is always trying to be likable and conciliatory, but somehow her natural bossiness comes storming through. She takes great pains to acknowledge her own vast good fortune and the validity of every other kind of choice a woman can make. But the superwoman keeps letting stuff slip. Weirdly, she says she prefers the phrase “career-loving parent” to working mom. (Try that one out on your kids, and then duck!) Sandberg hardly mentions child care, an obstacle for women considering all-consuming leadership roles. And there’s not a single moment where you feel she’s been genuinely sad or afraid about the toll her career takes on her kids.

Undoubtedly, Lean In will be invaluable for young women in business school who want to be Sheryl Sandberg. Those who have a more nuanced view of success and who prefer to call ourselves “working mom” rather than “career-loving parent” may find the book strangely lacking in warmth and other recognizable human qualities. Sandberg admits that colleagues took bets on how long she’d be able to stay offline when she went into the hospital to have her first baby. A day after the birth, instead of staring in rapt wonder at her tiny son, she was sending work e-mails.

If that’s called leaning in, then count me out.

Pearson is the author of the novels I Think I Love You and I Don’t Know How She Does It.


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