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.
To some who have been on the front lines fighting this fight for so many decades, this sounds very retro indeed, and they want to sigh and say to the younger generation of women, “There you go again!” Perhaps some older feminists are looking at these Silicon Valley hatchlings who’ve made it big and fast, and in mostly a young man’s world, and wondering if they are somehow heartless Frankensteins. Who might even turn on us! Maybe that is where some of the horror—and the snark—is coming from.
But I say pity these women, for the very same reason Sandberg is put off by the mentor seekers. Pity them because with such a dearth of women at the tippy-top, we want to—no, we insist that we—own them. We assume their every move and utterance symbolizes the advancement (or denigration) of our own cause. We want them to be the feminist queen or messiah we have been waiting for. We thrust all our hopes and dreams on women like Sandberg and Mayer, then are horrified when they don’t behave exactly as we would wish them to.
The real pity, however, is for us: that there are so few successful women in the public eye that we have not yet had the time to work out our own transference issues. And God(dess) help Hillary if she decides to run in 2016!
Lesley Jane Seymour is the editor-in-chief of MORE magazine.
For more about women and work: How To Be Employable in 10 Years.
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