Women: Damned If You Do or Don’t

Lean in… but not so far that you become out of touch. That seems to be the critical response to Sheryl Sandberg’s new mantra to career women everywhere. Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in the New York Times this week, “Pompom Girl for Feminism” says:

“Noting that her Facebook page for “Lean In” looks more like an ego wall with “deep thoughts,” critics argue that her unique perch as a mogul with the world’s best husband to boot makes her tone-deaf to the problems average women face as they struggle to make ends meet in a rough economy, while taking care of kids, aging parents and housework.”

Elsewhere in the NYT this week, in “A Titan’s How-To On Breaking Glass Ceilings” Jodi Kantor writes: “Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder.”

For crying out loud. It’s not as though she skipped to the end of a rainbow and found a pot of Harvard MBAs and Google stock certificates. Sandberg isn’t an heiress to her wealth. She has earned everything she’s got – isn’t she exactly the kind of woman whose advice you should take?

At precisely what point in your career are you successful enough to have influence en masse, but not so successful that you have become out of touch with the everywoman? Sure, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg “have it all” – including help, a luxury afforded by their self-made success, which ironically seems to strip them of their right to talk about being working women. Never mind the 15 years of their careers that led up to their C-suite positions – now they have stock options and huge salaries, so what do they know? 

“While she may empathize, does she really know what it is like for the single mom with a disabled child who has no choice but to work to put food on the table?” one commenter asks. If said-single-mom, by her own grit and brilliance, should find herself elevated to the sort of international soap-box necessary for a widespread audience and influence, it’s more than likely that her meteoric rise would be accompanied by the sort of paycheck that eliminates these economic burdens. Is she now forbidden to speak of her former struggles? On the path to success, does the arrival delegitimize the journey?

People seem to have forgotten that Sandberg and Mayer didn’t simply roll out of bed one morning and land in a giant pile of money. They both obtained bachelor’s and graduate degrees from top-notch schools (Harvard and Stanford), which means they have likely been busting their asses since grade school. And while Sandberg now has the luxury of leaving the office at 5:30, she undoubtedly pulled some all nighters earlier in her educational and professional career. Mayer has been famously noted for sleeping under her desk at Google and pulling 130 hour work weeks. (Side note: when I searched for that article to link, “Marissa Mayer, sleep_” auto-completed with “sleep her way to the top.”)

“Sandberg describes taking her kids to a business conference last year and realizing en route that her daughter had head lice. But the good news was that she was on the private eBay jet,” quips Dowd. Frankly, being trapped in an airtight space with a lice infestation seems like a nightmare, regardless of who owns the plane/train/automobile. Is the eBay jet equipped with professional delousers and a supply of RID and fine-toothed metal combs? Otherwise, it’s irrelevant, because all the Veuve Clicquot in the world couldn’t defeat those little demons. In another light, this might be seen as an example of how wealth and success do not immunize her to the common trials of motherhood, but instead, Dowd highlights her luxe mode of transportation. So what? She got an extra bag of peanuts while digging bugs out of her kid’s hair? Fancy.

Billionaire men throw money at cars, planes, yachts, hotels, casinos, and other obscure material luxuries, and people want to point fingers at Mayer for having a nanny? And Sandberg for having a cooperative husband? Does Jack Dorsey have a cleaning staff? Probably, but no one’s writing articles about how out of touch he is from middle-class bachelors everywhere.

Angela Benton wonders why more female founders are not accepting positions in the NewMe accelerator. Possibly, the sort of under-the-microscope analysis of “work-life balance” that accompanies female success gives women reason for pause.

Whether you marry or don’t, whether you have children or don’t, whether you hire a nanny or don’t, whether you breastfeed or don’t, whether you stay home or don’t, whether you have an “easy” baby or don’t, whether you speak up or don’t, whether you “lean in” or don’t, one thing’s for sure: you’re damned if you do or you don’t.

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