Sheryl Sandberg is the tenth most powerful business woman in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of some £530 million, and she’s adamant that she didn’t get where she is today without a healthy dose of assertiveness, determination and ambition.
In her book, Lean in: women, work and the will to lead, Sandberg addresses the dearth of women in leadership roles and investigate just what is holding them back. Her answer: not just extermal, structural problems, but internal obstacles which she says won’t fall down unless women themselves start pushing.
In short, what is holding women back is a thousand small decisions: failing to stand up for yourself when it matters, deferring to others first, being too modest about successes, deliberately holding back because of future plans to have a family.
“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes”, she declares: and the reason why this is not so, she believes, cannot simply be blamed on the patriarchal establishment.
Using stories gleaned from her similarly high-flying friends and celebrity acquaintances (there is a lot of name dropping scattered through the book), as well as her own experience, Sandberg offers a solution. Don’t hold back, but commit wholeheartedly to your future success.
A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes.Sheryl Sandberg
There are practicalities here too, a nod to those struggling to balance career and family life. Getting things done, she counsels, is better than trying to be perfect. Setting obtainable goals is crucial, although “dreaming is not doing”.
There is also advice on negotiating skills, and dealing with criticism wisely: charting that path to success, Sandberg warns, is like “trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels”.
To help chart that tricky course, she has set up a website encouraging women to set up their own “lean in” groups, along with videos and other resources. Jessica Bennett, from New York magazine went to one such group and was impressed.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
“She has labelled a solution for problems that are rampant among a generation raised to believe that we were on level footing – and a pragmatic approach to change it.”
Anne Marie Slaughter, who served as director of policy planning for Hillary Clinton, sparked a fierce controversy over the role of women in the workplace with her Atlantic article declaring “why women still can’t have it all”. She stepped back from her own leadership role because of her family: yet she has been equally complimentary, calling Sandberg a “feminist champion”.
But some of her critics have complained that her highly selective, unashamedly elite experience offers no help whatsoever to those who are less well off, single parents, less well educated, non-white? Women who lack the luxury of making choices?
At least, say supporters, the Facebook executive is trying to offer a partial solution to a compelling problem. In the United States, research shows that just 21 of the top Fortune 500 jobs are held by women.
Women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, despite President Obama’s renewed push for equal pay. In these recessionary times of unemployment and downsizing, women’s participation in the US workforce is starting to decline.
In the UK, the picture is depressingly similar. A report into women in top management positions commissioned by the Government, did reveal this week that the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is now at a record high: up from 12.5% in 2011 to 18% today.
Decades away from equality
And outside that blue chip elite, the picture is even less rosy: the workplace is still “decades away” from equality.
And as for juggling that family with a high-flying career: that is no easier, either, according to a study of 2,000 women carried out by the Association of Accounting Technicians this week.
They found the overwhelming majority of new mothers feel they haven’t got enough confidence to return to work after maternity leave. Two thirds said they felt drained of self belief, while more than half thought they were no longer capable enough after taking time off. Instead they felt trapped by the drudge work of home life, robbing them of the space for creativity and ambition at work.
Just because routines and priorities change once women have a family, said the AAT, “doesn’t neccessarily mean that one’s career should be negatively affected or sacrificed”.
And that, in essence, is Sandberg’s argument. Stop being afraid. Do it anyway. Don’t shape yourself to fit around the world: make it bend around you.
As for the very real structural, historical barriers that still hold back women’s advancement, the “million cracks” in the glass ceiling that prevented even Hillary Clinton from fulfilling her presidential ambitions, first time round at least – that is not something that finds a solution here.
Men too need a manifesto for change: this burden is not simply on womens’ shoulders. The real struggle for equality is far wider than the Sandberg white, educated, wealthy elite, and it is a struggle which they cannot win on their own.