Hopefully we’re in the wind-down phase of the negative reactions to Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer ending that company’s work-at-home option and Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg suggesting women “lean in” and take responsibility for their own career advancement.
I originally set out to examine the counterintuitive actions of Sandberg and Mayer, how their words and deeds defied what we expect from women business leaders. But my initial reaction was wrong. Instead I believe Sandberg and Mayer are victims of a backlash, partly due to their being uber-successful business women.
Making the Tough Calls
As a longtime proponent of remote working, I was initially shocked when Mayer changed Yahoo's work-at-home policy. Many surveys show remote workers to be more productive. The Telework Research Network reports between 20 million and 30 million Americans work from home at least one day a week, up 73 percent from 2005. The results of a 2010 survey from Brigham Young University show that after working 38 hours a week, office workers feel their jobs intrude on their personal lives, while at-home workers don’t feel that way until they’ve worked 57 hours.
My small company of three runs virtually. My partners, both moms, love it. Honestly, I don’t. So does that reduce the debate to a “mommy” issue? Telework’s president Kate Lister says no, telling Bloomberg Businessweek “families in general need this flexibility.” And yet so much of the criticism Mayer endured was aimed at her anti-mommy stance. Huffington Post columnist Lisa Belkin wrote, “I had hope for Marissa Mayer. I'd thought … she'd use her platform and her power to make Yahoo an example of a modern family-friendly workplace.”
Mayer is not without her defenders. They cite the collaborative Silicon Valley culture that creates inviting office environments, where employees are treated to free food and smartphones. Google, Mayer’s former employer, has no official policy, but encourages people to work at the office.
RELATED: Was Marissa Mayer Right to Make Employees Work From the Office?
Before (and soon after) Yahoo’s announcement, other corporations, like Best Buy, Bank of America and the much-admired Zappos, stopped offering remote working options. Zach Ware, a Zappos executive, told The New York Times, “The success of our company is built on our culture, and our perspective is you can’t really do that on email.” That sounds similar to Mayer’s memo, which noted, “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.” And yet no one said Zappos' CEO Tony Hsieh was “clueless about how creative work occurs” or that he didn’t “understand one of the most basic ideas about managing workers” or he “doesn’t know how to measure workers’ performance,” as a Slate article accused Mayer.
Rather than getting credit for acting like a CEO and doing what she thinks is needed to right a sinking ship, is Mayer being measured by a different standard than a male CEO would be?
A Stalled Progress
A few weeks ago I noted that in her manifesto The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan implored women to get out of the house and into the office. Before Sheryl Sandberg wrote her “sort-of-a-feminist-manifesto” Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sandberg reread Friedan’s work. Like Friedan was, Sandberg is being attacked for being accomplished, rich and privileged and trying to lay a guilt trip on American women. Sandberg is taking lumps for arguing that women are at least partly responsible for their lack of advancement in the workplace. (Entrepreneurship is not addressed in Lean In.)
And yet it’s hard to argue with the numbers. Sandberg notes, “While women continue to outpace men in educational achievement, we have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry.” In fact, “the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged.” About 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by a woman, and 17 percent of board seats are held by women, up from 14 percent 10 years ago. The year I graduated high school (1970), women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In 2010, that grew to 77 cents. So are we arguing that 18 cents over the course of 40 years is progress?
Despite what her critics say, Sandberg is not putting all the blame on women for this snail’s pace of growth. She writes, “Women face real obstacles … including blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment. Women have to prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do.” But she adds, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives—the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.” And that is why “men still run the world.”
Much of the attacks on Sandberg have focused on her pointing the finger solely at women. But she chose to focus Lean In on the “internal obstacles” since they’re “rarely discussed and often underplayed.” Sandberg argues these deserve attention since “they’re under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today.”
The Numbers Don't Lie
Like Mayer, Sandberg’s been accused of making women feel guilty, for “setting back the cause of working mothers” and for “blaming other women for not trying hard enough.” But Sandberg is not creating her own reality. We women entrepreneurs, while obviously more willing to jump into the fray, also need to lean in. It has long frustrated me that though the startup rate for women-owned businesses has exceeded the general startup rate for years—and continues to do so (between 1997 and 2013, the number of women-owned firms grew at 1.5 times the national average), resulting in women owning 29 percent of all U.S. businesses, a new study by American Express OPEN reveals our businesses contribute less than 4 percent of business revenues and we only employ 6 percent of the workforce, roughly, according to the study “the same share they contributed in 1997.” And only 4 percent of women-owned firms have revenues over $500,000.
There’s no question it’s still harder for women to succeed, both as employees and entrepreneurs. Sandberg cites an experiment conducted by professors from New York University and Columbia University’s business schools. Students were given a case study of an actual entrepreneurial woman, named Heidi. Half the students read Heidi’s story; the other half read the same story, but it was about Howard (who didn’t exist). The students thought both Heidi and Howard were equally competent, however Howard was considered “an appealing colleague” while Heidi was “seen as selfish and ‘not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.’” Sandberg concludes, “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of bother genders like her less.”
RELATED: How Far Have Women Really Come Since "The Feminine Mystique"?
Sandberg came late to feminism. She writes, “Looking back it made no sense for my college friends and me to distance ourselves from the hard-won achievements of earlier feminists. We should have cheered their efforts. Instead, we lowered our voices, thinking the battle was over.” That reticence has changed. Sandberg acknowledges, “We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted … Now I proudly call myself a feminist.”
The message of Lean In is hard to argue with. I recognized myself, both my strengths and weaknesses. Sandberg is not blaming us—she’s encouraging us to aspire for more, to seize the opportunities. Isn’t that what Marissa Mayer is doing? She’s leaning in to fix what she thinks is broken at Yahoo.Given the reaction to Sandberg’s book and plans to launch LeanIn.org, a nonprofit seeking to help women organize, network and share, achieving parity won’t be easy. But as Sandberg points out, “Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized.”
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