I feel sorry for Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. No, really. And not for the reason you’d expect.
I certainly don’t pity them for their successes: Both are likely billionaires, both are young, and both have risen quite quickly to the top in the tech field.
But I do pity them for the unrealistic expectations we’ve laid upon them. Yahoo!’s Mayer is using every trick in a CEO’s handbook to turn around a notoriously unwieldy and amorphous Internet enterprise. Facebook COO Sandberg is trying to address the obstacles to women’s advancement in the workplace. And yet with every step they take—even every imagined step—they have created a kerfuffle.
Ironically, I don’t think these kerfuffles have as much to do with these women per se as they do with us, their longing acolytes. Because for years we have been telling ourselves, “If only women ran the world, everything would be different.”
We’ve pointed to the studies saying that unlike men—who wield power using fear and self-promotion—women rule by consensus and connection.
We’ve repeated the research that has found that in the developing world, if you give a man a dollar, he will run off and spend it on himself, while a woman will spend it on her community, making her a wiser investment.
We’ve cited the statistics showing that corporate boards with at least three women have a financial edge.
The case for women to run a better world seemed open and shut: Peace. Love. Kumbaya.
Enter Mayer, stage left. Though most of her issues, I think, have been the result of less-than-stellar public relations (she should know that any decree forcing hundreds of telecommuters out of their PJs and into the office is going to find its way onto the Internet, and only in the snarkiest manner), she is doing what she deems necessary to serve her ultimate bosses—the Yahoo! shareholders. Could her memo have been more deftly worded as, say, a “call to creativity”? Certainly! But a CEO’s gotta do what she’s gotta do.
Enter Sandberg, stage right. Publishing a book with a title like Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is certainly asking for a critical pile-on—and that’s exactly what happened. But the tone (for those of us who actually got a chance to read an advance copy) is humble and down to earth. (“To this day, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking,” she confesses after recounting a particularly sick-making sprint she made across a crowded lot to an important client meeting while pregnant with her first child.)
She is not the vaunted Silicon Valley exec ordering women to pull themselves up by their Manolos, as some have suggested. But she is feminism 2.0—admitting, for example, that it can be annoying to have all these needy strangers pawing at her to become their mentor after she gives a speech. During one post-speech Q&A session, Sandberg writes, “the men were focusing on how to manage a business and the women were focusing on how to manage a career . . . I realized that searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.” And rather than expect the business world to blow up its male-centric model overnight, she is asking women to change their behavior—to take a seat at the table (literally!) instead of hanging back on the sidelines, to negotiate better pay, to grab for leadership roles even if we are only 60 percent certain we have the credentials for that step—because, after all, that is what men do.