Sheryl Sandberg’s Authenticity Gap

800px-Arianna_Huffington,_Muhtar_A._Kent_and_Sheryl_SandbergIf women are supposed to help other women, what is one powerful woman to do when another powerful woman does something anti-women? Such is Sheryl Sandberg’s dilemma. And so far, Sandberg has opted to stand with her equals rather than speak out for her base.

As you must know by now, Sandberg is the author of a new book and the face of a so-called new brand of feminism, both centered around what she calls “leaning in.” To get to the “truly equal world” she envisions, in which “women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg urges women to literally take a seat at the board room table. If we want to change institutions to make them more friendly to women, she reasons that we need to put more women in charge of the institutions.

Because we still haven’t achieved that Eden of equality, Sandberg turns the feminist revolution on its head. Instead of fighting for systemic change on a macro level, she puts the fight in the most micro of terms: every woman should “internalize the revolution” by embodying progress through her own career. The first step in becoming a Che Guevara of glass ceilings may prove to be the biggest — by Sandberg’s estimation, there are fewer women in leadership positions because there are fewer women ready and willing to serve as leaders. In other words, there’s an “ambition gap.”

That’s a diagnosis with inflammatory undertones. I’ve discovered that Sandberg has a bigger problem, though.

I’ve now read the book she refuses to label (not memoir, not self-help, not feminist manifesto). It does pack an empowering punch, and it stirs up a conversation that needs to be had, and perhaps be had differently. I’ve now also had the opportunity to see her speak at a luncheon hosted by The Commonwealth Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit aimed at helping grow women-led businesses. She is a very capable public speaker, and while much of her presentation was a repackaging of her book, it was still an engaging performance.

As the session turned into the question and answer portion, I hoped that someone would ask the question I was too shy to: what is her opinion of Marisssa Mayer’s decision to banish the work-from-home option at Yahoo! Sandberg is an unabashed cheerleader of flexible work policies, and has publicly repeated that she leaves Facebook every day at 5:30 p.m. to be home for dinner with her children. As she writes:

“[a]ll too often rigid work schedules . . . derail women’s best efforts [to combine career and family responsibilities]. . . . [C]ompany policies such as . . . flexible work practices would serve families, and societies, well.”

Mayer’s edict certainly flies in the face of Sandberg’s message.

But here’s the thing. Sandberg also ascribes, at least superficially, to the warning first issued by Madeleine Albright that “[t]here’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Mayer’s move challenges the depths of Sandberg’s allegiance to the maxim. Endorsing Mayer’s decision would mean supporting a corporate policy that, at least philosophically, negatively affects women in stark disproportion to men. Criticizing Mayer’s decision, though, would mean alienating a rare peer: a top executive and former colleague who also happens to be a woman.

I saw the trap Sandberg had set for herself, and I wanted to see how she’d try to avoid it. I hoped she would openly state that she disagreed with Mayer’s inflexibility. I doubted she would.

I was right (to doubt, not to hope).

Some brave soul did indeed as The Marissa Mayer Question. Sandberg provided what I can safely assume was a scripted answer. She remarked that: (1) Mayer was a friend; (2) if Mayer had been a man, no one would have remarked at the change in policy; and (3) only women leaders are forced to assume the standard-bearer role for all women.

I hated the answer.

To begin with, I think feathers would have been more than ruffled if a male CEO had disposed of Yahoo!’s work-from-home option; in fact, it might have created even more of a stir if a man had taken away the flexibility many working mothers depend on. But that comparison was not the point of the question. What’s more, it is inconsistent to say that women must help other women, or else, while also lamenting that women should not be held accountable for how their actions affect other women. Maybe Sandberg’s right about the special-hell assignment, and maybe she’s right that one woman should not have to stand for all women, but I don’t think she can be right both ways.

More troubling than what Sandberg did say, though, is what she didn’t. If you are raising your hand and declaring yourself the leader of not just a company, but an entire cultural movement – as Sandberg is unabashedly doing – you are going to have to say things that might cause discomfort at your next Google reunion or Corner Office Club meeting. Sandberg could have easily said “Marissa is a friend, I don’t have visibility into Yahoo!’s problems, but I think it’s an unfortunate policy when judged from the outside.” She could have compromised her tone instead of utterly side-stepping the question, and the issue.

For a woman who champions workplace flexibility to so completely ignore a now-famous example of workplace inflexibility struck me as weak. It struck me as ill-conceived. It struck me as inauthentic.

An authenticity gap is dangerous in any line of work, but it is especially crippling for a self-proclaimed revolutionary. Sandberg’s apparent decision to sacrifice her message for the sake of her social life is more than disappointing – it’s scary. If she doesn’t have the guts to follow her principles to wherever they may lead her, then how am I supposed to have the guts to follow her wherever she’d like to lead me?

Image via Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum

  • Much of the focus in these stories is about women with small children — yet all workers need flexible schedules throughout life, and even more so in the aging parent’s phase. Having children who need assistance in getting “launched” and parents who have specific help needs is very challenging for someone who is working full time. There are always very difficult choices.

    The largest employer in our town is a non-union car plant. I have a nephew who works for the same group in a different state. He’s been there forever and makes a very good wage but can only miss two days a year outside of vacation time. Doctor’s appointments for family members? No. Why can’t doctor’s be open on a more flexible schedule?

    Sorry for the rant, but I just wanted to get these things off my chest. I think this is a very good article and makes a lot of good points.

    All leaders — men or women — need to make environments more family-friendly.

  • Lindsay

    Great article Abby!

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