Berating Sheryl Sandberg’s message won’t benefit the working woman.

We can’t escape Sandberg’s message: “Women need to break the stereotypes that keep them from excelling. They need to take a seat at the table. They need to quit leaving mentally before they’ve really left.”

“While women continue to outpace men in educational achievement, we have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry.” Women constitute 46% of the workforce and 56% of all new graduates in Australia. With women still earning, 82.5c (17.5% less) for every dollar earned by a male (77 cents in America), the struggle for equality is not over.

In the ASX 200, women’s representation in Senior Executive positions is 9.7% (less than 1 in 10); in line management positions 6% and in support positions, 22%. Less than four in every 100 CEOs in the ASX 200 and the ASX 500 are women. And women only hold 9.2% of ASX 500 directorships.

Sandberg’s philosophy Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead was written by a woman with real power. In the last 40 years, I can only think of three influential feminist leaders – Betty Friedan, whose manifesto The Feminine Mystique implored women to get out of the house and into the office; Gloria Steinem, the most influential leader of the women’s liberation movement in the 70s; and now Sheryl Sandberg.

Like Friedan and Steinem, Sandberg is being attacked for being accomplished, opinionated and privileged.  The loudest reactions have been unconstructive. Her critics note that it’s easier to lean in when you have two Harvard degrees, a slew of nannies, and a fat stock portfolio at your disposal. Apparently, she has also negated the choices of women who decide not to engage in such ambitious careers.

The criticism is predictable, as it’s become a trend to rip apart powerful women in an attempt to promote the women’s movement. Solidarity of the sisterhood is a myth. It doesn’t mean it does not exist; it’s just that not all women are nurturing and supportive of one another.

Despite the increasing number of women in the workforce, the corporate environment can sometimes become hostile, especially to women. Instead of laying the foundation for the evolution of the sisterhood, women have joined men in the harassment of their own gender.

“We need to push back on the stereotypes and help women reach opportunities,” because, when women succeed, they shouldn’t be described as “aggressive,” says Sandberg. They should be celebrated the same way as men.

Sandberg’s contribution and worth has been reduced in all the ways we describe women, and not men. We know what she wears, how she styles her hair and what her spouse contributes to the relationship and in the home.

What is beneath this rage and exasperation is fear. Perhaps what alarms her critics is that Sandberg isn’t so unlike us. Sandberg cannot be radicalised or perceived as a revolutionary like Friedan, or anti-marriage like Steinem. Sandberg is married, she is a mother and she is like other university educated women of the same age. Sandberg is making women question their own potential – her claims bite because they echo the conflict within all working women.

It’s also important to understand that Sandberg is not placing all the blame on women for the very real inequalities that still exist in the workplace: “Women face real obstacles … including blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment. Women have to prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do.”

However, she asserts, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives—the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.” And that is why “men still run the world.”

“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” Sandberg is not blaming women, on the contrary, she is encouraging us to aspire for more.



 

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