Wednesday, July 6, 2011

the New Yorker on Women: Sheryl Sandberg

I happened upon the New Yorker's current piece about Sheryl Sandberg yesterday - don't worry, I didn't know who she was either. While the article opens and closes on her work at Facebook, I was so compelled to share it due to the mid-section detailing her career and - much more broadly - the inner-intricacies of women in the workforce in ways I had yet to see printed, spoken, explained.

It begins with women in start-ups, the story of how few women are in Silicon Valley and how few engineer role models are around for young women to look up to. But, it also goes here:
"Sandberg says she eventually realized that women, unlike men, encountered tradeoffs between success and likability. The women had internalized self-doubt as a form of self-defense: people don’t like women who boast about their achievements. The solution, she began to think, lay with the women. She blamed them more for their insecurities than she blamed men for their insensitivity or their sexism."

While her story is clearly one of a woman of caliber with obvious successes, the louder point is the exploration of women's true barriers. And insecurities. Women think in terms of how others will see them and there's definite negativity surrounding the aggressive woman who is seen as "violating the feminine stereotype of being ‘nurturing’ and ‘supportive’" and are "less warm and less nice." Sandberg says:
"The men [at Google] were getting ahead. The men were banging down the door for new assignments, promotions, the next thing to do, the next thing that stretches them. And the women - not all, most - you talked them into it."

Some people read that to mean that women have to be men to have any kind of success in the workplace.

Sandberg lists three things - and the first is "sit at the table," which she follows with a reference to how few women entering the workforce negotiate their salaries (there are SO many tutorials, books, mentors willing to help you learn how to do it effectively - don't be shy). Second she emphasizes equal partnership marriages. Third is her now oft-repeated quote: "Don't leave before you leave." She means for women not to pull themselves out of the running in their careers when they start thinking about having children, but I find that too narrow. It is absolutely applicable constantly to both men and women who sell themselves short.

Sure, none of this is revolutionary. But she is out there championing this point. She spoke at TEDWomen and at Barnard and at Harvard Business School.

And what is hugely essential to anyone's professional development is sponsorship, which is much harder for women to come by. The idea of sponsorship is the more senior employee or executive who ushers along the budding career of the junior star. And it's Sylvia Ann Hewlett's point that is made in the article: "Two-thirds of senior male executives are fearful of sponsoring a junior female executive, and half of these women are fearful of accepting such sponsorship." Her research in the Harvard Business Review last year explains:
"Sponsorship, which often involves an older, married male spending one-on-one time, often off site and after hours, with a younger, unmarried female, can look like an affair; and the greater the power disparity between the male and the female, the more intense the speculation becomes that the relationship is more than professional. If the woman is subsequently promoted, her achievement will be undermined by office gossip that she earned it illicitly."

Women cannot wait for men to be impressed with our abilities, to be intimidated by our negotiating (link to Kara Swisher who was quoted in the article), or to be persuaded by our femininity. Women need to get over themselves and help other women. Right now, very few of us are sponsoring each other. And while this isn't necessarily Sandberg's stance (she's been called a "smoothie" as opposed to a "terrifier"), what we do need is to get over the expectation that the female employee or manager or executive is going to make the tough calls, develop the winning strategy, but also has to bake you cookies and pat you on the back when you're crying at your desk.

If you haven't seen it yet, read the article here.

August 2009 - Ocean City, MD

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