March 13, 2013 4:28 pm

Public crusade to help women get to the top

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Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook Inc©Bloomberg

Manifesto for the elite: Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf/WH Allen, $24.95/£16.99)

When multimillionaire basketball players and rappers return to their inner-city neighbourhoods to tell kids to stay in school and chase their dreams, they are lauded for their em­brace of being role models. But now that Sheryl Sandberg has risen to billionaire status as the chief operating officer at Facebook, and wants to impart some of her wisdom to the female ranks of entry-level corporate America in a book, Lean In , she has been deemed unqualified to counsel the masses.

Several feminist voices have argued that Sandberg’s elite position as a well-paid and powerful Silicon Valley executive, backed by a team of hired help at home, renders her ideas about how women can balance work and family irrelevant. But to dismiss the whole of Lean In because of Sandberg’s privileged childcare arrangements is to overlook several chapters of empowering career advice that has nothing to do with babies. Her mission is not and never was to solve the problems of the waitresses and chambermaids who toil in America’s diners and motels for their families.

Sandberg’s manifesto is aimed specifically at women who are on a path towards the top corporate jobs in the US, or aspire to be. That is, women who could help improve these statistics: “A meagre 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women hold 14 per cent of executive officer positions, 16 per cent of board seats and constitute just 18 per cent of our elected congressional officials.”

Lean In holds a rare spot in the canon of career and corporate leadership advice, most of which is written by men. With the help of journalist Nell Scovell, and a team of Stanford and Harvard researchers, Sandberg has produced a clear and engaging treatise outlining the sociological forces that work against women’s professional advancement.

To that she has added personal anecdotes and reflections from forging her own career in a male-dominated workforce, giving an intriguing glimpse into the experience of one of the most successful women in business.

If few women can relate to Sandberg’s financial success, millions will relate to her admissions of insecurity, and her personal encounters with sexism, both blatant and subtle.

She recounts a manager at the management consultancy McKinsey, her first employer after she earned her MBA from Harvard. When he wanted to talk to her male colleagues, he would walk over. “When he wanted to talk to me, he would sit at his desk and shout, ‘Sandberg, get over here!’ with the tone one might use to call a child or even worse, a dog.”

Behind closed doors, many professional women will attest that modern-day offices are rife with this sort of demeaning treatment, as well as more nuanced comments, usually uttered by well-meaning but unaware supervisors – the “benevolent sexists”, as researchers have coined them. But most women do not talk about it publicly for fear of making things worse.

Now that Sandberg is responsible for overseeing thousands of employees, she calls on her past to form a proactive management approach. “Staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations of women who entered corporate America could do and, in some cases, might still be the safest path,” she writes. “But this strategy is not paying off for women as a group.”

Critics argue that the basic points of Lean In, drawn from Sandberg’s hugely popular 2010 TED talk “Why we have too few women leaders” puts too much onus on women to work harder, when it is government policies and capitalist benchmarks that are in need of revolution.

Her calls for women to “lean in” to their careers, to strive for promotion, especially when they are considering having children, or to “find an equal partner” who will share the household duties more equitably, have been countered with calls for more institutional reform.

But Sandberg is in fact pushing for institutional reform, at least from the C-suite at Facebook.

Grassroots movements are bottom-up, but leadership is top-down. While Sandberg’s tone in the final chapters of Lean In devolves into a vague plea for women of all backgrounds to get along and work together towards equality, the descriptions of her own management experiments aimed at improving the working environment for women reflect her power to lead by example.

When she reviews employee job performance evaluations that include phrases such as “while she’s really good at her job, she’s just not well- liked by her peers”, she cites the research about the negative correlation of success and likeability for women, and asks the supervisor to re-evaluate whether there is a “real problem or a perception problem”.

She has asked female employees and job applicants directly about their childbearing plans, despite the legal risks of such questions, so she can help women develop career trajectories that work for them, and so that her company does not lose the talent.

Sandberg’s hope is that her book will help spark a broader conversation about women and work – one she hopes more women and men will join, and more women and men in power will heed.

Lean In is as much a leadership manifesto as a feminist one.

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