Focus on Leadership Issues, Not Gender Issues
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook's new tome about the need for women to "lean in" to realize their full potential is yet another example of a successful leader who happens to be a woman building her leadership message around women's issues rather than about human issues. Few topics guarantee a ton of negative reaction and commentary like a successful, wealthy executive woman playing the woman card, and the reaction to Sandberg's message is no exception.
Sandberg's premise is pretty simple: We need to look at why there are so few women leaders when women are the majority in the educational system. She suggests three messages to "women who want to stay in the workforce: (1) Sit at the table -- have the confidence to reach for opportunities; (2) Make your partner a real partner -- share responsibilities at home so you and your partner can both pursue careers; and (3) Don't leave before you leave -- challenge yourself at work so that when you have a decision to make, there are compelling reasons to stay or come back."
Sandberg previewed this premise at the TED conference and, more recently, discussed the topic of her new book on 60 Minutes, with Norah O'Donnell doing an excellent job of directly challenging Sandberg with many of the skeptical views that are circulating in the blogosphere as Sandberg's aggressive book tour is proceeding. This was my favorite part of the exchange:
"Sheryl Sandberg: I'm not suggesting women aren't ambitious. Plenty of women are as ambitious as men. What I am saying, and I want to say it unequivocally and unapologetically, is that the data is clear that when it comes to ambition to lead, to be the leader of whatever you're doing, men, boys, outnumber girls and women.
Norah O'Donnell: But some women will hear that and say, "Wow, she's telling me I'm not working hard enough, I'm not trying hard enough. She's blaming women..."
Sheryl Sandberg: Yeah, I'm not blaming women. My message is not one of blaming women. There's an awful lot we don't control. I am saying that there's an awful lot we can control and we can do for ourselves to sit at more tables, raise more hands."
That's the problem in a nutshell -- Sandberg is making an honest effort to share the benefit of her experience as a woman who has "made it" to advise other women to "go for it," and yet this message is fraught with the extremely risky territory of seeming to blame the victims -- women themselves -- that they aren't doing enough or "leaning in" enough.
It's one of the reasons I've always recommended that the women leaders I've represented focus on leadership issues rather than women's issues, unless they are talking to internal groups designed to help mentor and grow women leaders. [Even in these circumstances, I'm always a bit uncomfortable with the exclusion of young male leaders, who also need guidance and direction. But I digress.]
Successful women leaders are always staring straight into the thorny issue of work/life balance and the holy grail myth of "having it all" whenever they speak or write publicly. Take the reaction to Marissa Mayer's recent internal memo insisting that remote workers at Yahoo! need to work at headquarters as the troubled company turns itself around. LPP's Allison Kreider blogged about it, questioning it as yet another ban of a privilege. [Interestingly, she also referenced her own questioning of bans like this one as "leaning in," a la Sheryl Sandberg]. But much of the negativity about Mayer's move layered in criticism of her privileges as a working mother with a nursery next to her office and other perceived perks. [In hindsight, the biggest issue with this decision to shift remote workers back to headquarters was the way it was communicated. In this 24/7 world, one has to assume that all internal memos, especially of controversial topics, will be leaked. But regardless of the communication mistakes, it was working Mom executive Mayer who took the brunt of the criticism.]
One of the most interesting treatments of this issue because it was more holistic was Anne-Marie Slaughter's treatise in The Atlantic last summer, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." Another autobiographical view of the situation, like Sandberg's, it outlined how Slaughter had to step back from her position as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department because of needs at home that even a great partner who shared parenting and responsibilities could not handle without her. This wasn't about leaning back, forward, or sideways. It was a human issue and it affected both partners, their relationship and their child. [Note that Slaughter still works, as a professor, but this position better fits her entire lifestyle at this point in time.] Her article addresses the societal issues that make it hard for anyone -- with or without a partner and with or without resources -- to "have it all" or feel guilty because they aren't doing a good job of "having it all."
I loved the way Slaughter summed up her thinking in that long, well thought out article:
"If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing before us.
We'll create a better society in the process, for all women. We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek."
I don't know about you, but I'm "leaning in" on that more inclusive message.