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Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg argues in a controversial new book that women’s lack of commitment, even before they have a family, is why so few make it to the top. Is she right?In a sea of blue and black, Sheryl Sandberg, a vivacious brunette in an orange jacket, stood out. Intense, engaged, gesturing for emphasis, Facebook’s chief operating officer and one of the most influential women in global business, was intent on getting her message across.
“We know the childbearing years are a challenge for women, [for companies] to keep them, we know that,” Sandberg said. ”How many managers in this audience have sat down with a woman – who has not mentioned it to you [before] – and said, ‘You may want to have a child one day, I want to talk to you about that. Are you thinking of having children?’ Who’s done that?”
Among the hundreds of chief executives attending the session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week not a single hand was raised.
“Every HR department tells you not to do that,” nodded Sandberg. “But how are we going to get women through that frame if we can’t have that conversation?”
There were heads of state, Hollywood stars and even royalty competing for headlines at Davos, but it was Sandberg, 43, who managed to make a splash by tackling this business taboo .
But rather than reinforcing firms’ grumbles over maternity leave, her point was that more openness could actually help women themselves, as well as helping companies plan staffing and maternity leave.
If that suggestion raised eyebrows, Sandberg’s take on another issue concerning women in the workplace is likely to prove much more controversial: could women be doing more to promote their own success? Do their plans for family life mean women are wrecking their own careers – even before they have begun?
The book in which Sandberg lays out her arguments, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead will be published in March, but it is already causing a stir across the Atlantic.
“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,” Sandberg writes, according to a preview in the New York Times. “We internalise 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.”
As a result, she says many women are quietly checking out of their careers, years before they actually start a family. She believes women rarely make a sweeping decision to give up work to look after children, but instead make a string of choices from early on that propel them towards that end result, none the less.
“Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, ‘I’ll take a slightly less interesting speciality because I’m going to want more balance one day,'” she has said. “Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, ‘I’m not even sure I should go for partner[ship at the firm], because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back [from their careers]. The problem is, often they don’t even realise it.”
It is a message that Sandberg has been honing for some time.
“Do not leave before you leave,” she told students graduating from New York’s Barnard College for women in 2011 . “Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”
At Davos she won a global audience for her views, which is likely to be reinforced by the Lean In Org, a social media movement in development.
Sandberg will be listened to: she is a woman who walks her talk. The first female on Facebook’s board, her $30million-plus (£19m) pay packet in 2011 made her the social media giant’s best-paid executive – not to mention her share options, which run into millions of dollars. This follows senior roles as chief of staff for the US Treasury Department (1996-2001) and at Google (2001-2008).
Family life – she is a mother of two – is important to her. She famously leaves the office – although it is not necessarily the end of her working day – at 5.30pm. Her husband, Dave Goldberg, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, leaves work at the same time and has commented wryly that “nobody asks me about it”.
So, does Sandberg hold the answers? Those wanting to see women better represented in senior jobs know there is some way to go. While Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, this week boasted that only seven firms in the prestigious FTSE 100 index now have all-male boards, the unspoken caveat is that just two out of those 100 corporate giants are led by a woman.
Research shows that even when men and women enter a company in equal proportions, the number of women drops the higher up you get. Rather than focusing on the glass ceiling, the talk now is of a “cliff” – not at the top, but in the middle – which women fall off when they have a family.
In this context, Sandberg’s call is striking a chord. At that Davos session, Christine Lagarde, who as head of the International Monetary Fund is one of the world’s most powerful women, was shaken out of the usual generalities and platitudes to get personal.
“When you say you leave your job at 5.30, Sheryl … you dare the difference,” she told Sandberg, praising her for resisting the pressure to fit in. “When I was raising my kids, I was not going to work at my law firm on Wednesday afternoon. I was taking a risk at the time. [But] who cared? I did the job, I followed clients’ business, I delivered.”
And yet, Sandberg’s message is not being received with universal acclaim. While she makes it clear that organisations play a critical role and may be guilty of “the overt discrimination, the non-overt discrimination, the lack of flexibility”, her solution is more focused on ”a much more open dialogue about gender”.
“I think we need to… understand that the stereotypes that start in childhood hold us back in the professional world, and start having a much more open conversation,” she said in Davos. “Think of it like a marathon. Everyone’s cheering the men on. The messages for women are different: are you sure you want to run, don’t you want to run, don’t you have kids at home? We have to talk about this.”
Try looking for a working mother, she told her audience, in “movies, TV, anything… who has a job and kids, who is not frazzled, [thinking] she can’t do it, breaking down, getting divorced. There are none.”
From Diane Keaton, wrestling with a briefcase and toddler in 1987’s Baby Boom, to Sarah Jessica Parker starring a near quarter-century later as a harassed executive in I Don’t Know How She Does It, it is true that not much seems to have changed.
For Sandberg, even in these supposedly more enlightened times, this gender bias takes hold early on. She points to T-shirts for babies bearing the message “Smart Like Daddy” for boys and “Pretty Like Mummy” for girls. Studies show that as a man climbs the professional ladder he is seen as more likeable, while the opposite holds for a woman. “That starts with those T-shirts,” she said.
All well and good, say her critics, but calling for a change in mindset ignores the very real obstacles facing working mothers.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female policy director at the US State Department, has complained that “Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?'”
What is the matter is that they are comparing themselves with “genuine superwomen”, was Slaughter’s blunt assessment . “Consider Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard’s top student of economics,” she added. ”These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves.”
Rather than just encourage young women to reach for the stars, Slaughter calls for practical measures that will actually help them to combine career and family life: making school schedules better match the working day, for example.
And yet, one of our home-grown “superwomen” thinks Sandberg is on to something. Helena Morrissey, the mother-of-nine who manages billions of pounds as head of Newton Investment Management, sees a “vicious spiral” at work, where women get discouraged from “leaning in” to their careers by a working environment they see as stacked against them.
“I hope Sandberg’s book will help and not be seen as blaming women for the problem,” she said. “There’s clearly a shared responsibility of women to ‘lean in’, as she puts it – but also for corporate culture to be conducive to encourage women to do that.”
Currently, research by the 30% Club, the initiative Morrissey heads to boost women’s presence on boards, finds that sometimes “the prize is not seen as worth the price they perceive is required,” she says.
Even if she fails to win over her critics, Sheryl Sandberg is trying hard to move the women and workplace debate on to new ground and air issues that have been marked out as ”no go areas” by employment regulations.
At Davos she described how her own lawyer tried to block an article she wrote telling women to “lean in before they have children”, in case she was fell foul of legislation. “Wait a minute, he works for me,” she remembered, before deciding to publish and be damned.
“If someone wants to sue me for gender discrimination because I’m talking to women about childbearing, go ahead,” she said. “No one talks about this and companies don’t talk about this. And we need to see the cost of this – and change it.”
Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (WH Allen, £20) is available to pre-order from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1514) at £18 + £1.35 p&p
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