I should just freely admit here and now that Sheryl Sandberg has been on my list of women to watch for quite some time. I tend to seek out her speeches and her TED talk (transcript here) remains one of my all-time favorites, although there are certain unsatisfying moments in there, to be sure.
Anyway, the Wall Street Journal recently published a piece about her that annoyed me. Here’s the gist in two sentences: A different executive founded a company that doesn’t exist anymore, even though she got pretty famous during the dot com era. Sandberg, like this other
girl woman – like all girls women, the article implied pretty strongly – is just another flash in the pan, so we can safely ignore her. After the initial flicker of anger, I have to admit that I was overcome by yawns. Really, some dude thinks that women can’t lead, especially not in technology? If they were giving out cookies for originality, you would go home hungry, writer man dude boy!
Speaking up about gender in the workplace takes some serious guts, especially in public. People assume that women who do this are bitter about their own workplaces or careers (we may be, but we may just be interested in a wider conversation) or that we’re engaging in personal venting, rather than attempting to reflect on serious, systemic problems and encourage others to do so. People who speak up are rare, and they are needed. In her Class Day speech to graduating MBAs at Harvard Business School, Sandberg had this to say about her own career (emphasis mine):
I recently started speaking up about the challenges women face in the workforce, something I only had the courage to do in the last few years. Before this, I did my career like everyone else does it. I never told anyone I was a girl. Don’t tell. I left the lights on when I went home to do something for my kids. I locked my office door and pumped milk for my babies while I was on a conference call. People would say, what’s that sound. I would say, ‘What sound? I hear a beep. It’s a fire truck.’
She calls out a phenomenon here that really hit home for me: I have spent significant portions of my career trying to never tell anyone that I was a girl, long before I was a mother, in making choices about how to perform gender in the workplace. Before I had a Simmons education and the confidence that comes with it under my belt, I was uncomfortable rewarding my team or catalyzing a birthday celebration in the office because those activities could tag me as girly in an environment where girly means weak and weak means being targeted for harassment. The funny thing about never telling anyone that you’re a girl, though, is that it doesn’t turn you into a guy. I didn’t get invited to the same networking opportunities outside of work that men did, and there was plenty of sexism to contend with no matter how much I minimized my performance of femininity.
Gradually, I was able to find more of a balance, thanks to experience, and Simmons, and a genuine desire to operate as my authentic self – who admittedly isn’t very girly, but does enjoy a good celebration with the team, perception of weakness be damned. Still, when I attempted to be forthright about my own pumping – by posting a “Pumping in Progress” sign on my office door – a coworker commented on the brazenness of my sign. How dare I reveal that I was a girl in plain sight like that! Shh…don’t tell!
I really like what Sandberg goes on to say next about women, leadership, and work (emphasis mine):
We need to acknowledge openly that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership. The promise of equality is not equality. We need to start talking about this.
We need to start talking about how women underestimate their abilities compared to men and for women, but not men. Success and likeability are negatively correlated. That means that as a woman is more successful in your workplaces, she will be less liked. This means that women need a different form of management and mentorship, a different form of sponsorship and encouragement, and some protection, in some ways more than men.
There aren’t enough senior women out there to do it, so it falls upon the men who are graduating today just as much or more as the women, not just to talk about gender but to help these women succeed. When they hear a woman is really great at her job but not liked, take a deep breath and ask why. We need to start talking openly about the flexibility all of us need to have both a job and a life.
A couple of weeks ago in an interview I said that I leave the office at 5 p.m. to have dinner with my children, and I was shocked at the press coverage. One of my friends said I couldn’t get more headlines if I had murdered someone with an ax! This showed me this is an unresolved issue for all of us, men and women. Otherwise, why did everyone write so much about it?
And this is the funny thing: along with not trying to let on that we’re girls, we’re expected to operate as if this kind of comment about one’s children didn’t generate the headlines, even though it does; as if success and likeability are not in conflict for women, even though they are (and even though women tend to be socialized to really care whether or not we’re liked); as if the dearth of women in top management seats and on boards means a shortage of talent, even though the evidence indicates that there is still a whole boatload of systemic conscious and unconscious bias that women face that keep them out of these positions. The cognitive dissonance is massive, naming it is still transgressive, and navigating it is both mandatory and complex.