I feel so conflicted about Sheryl Sandberg.
She’s speaking in the keynote at the 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which I’m happy to be attending this year. But I already have a pretty good idea of the gist of whatever message she’ll deliver, and I suspect it’s going to get under my skin a bit. My fellow Code-N-Sploder Christie has similar reservations, so we may be sitting together during the keynote to ease the tension a bit.
Sandberg, currently the COO of Facebook, was my first boss (up a few levels in the chain of command) out of college, as the head of Online Sales and Operations (OSO) at Google. As a figurehead for that division, she definitely made a positive impression, and her talent for management is immediately noticeable. But as an engineer embedded in OSO, I always felt isolated and out-of-place – most of the engineers were in the Engineering division, not OSO, so few people around me spoke my language – and by the time I was on my way out, a Sandberg speech tended to amplify that lack of connection more than anything else. But my experience at Google was unique and weird in a lot of ways (quite typical in others, as I’ve learned from other alumnae), and I left with a tremendous amount of respect for her and the company nonetheless.
I thought my disillusionment with Sandberg’s speeches was specific to that experience until I watched her TED talk on Women in Leadership when it was circulating the feeds of some of my friends early this year. I felt a familiar unsettled feeling returning, one that has come back again and again, as the issue of women in tech appears to be Sandberg’s pet cause, reappearing in most interviews I’ve seen with her since then. I read the New Yorker’s excellent profile of her on a flight back from New York this summer; TechCrunch has a piece on her today. The message has been similar in all contexts: the onus is on women if they want to increase their representation in the highest tiers of business; the shared responsibility of the systems that help perpetuate these inequalities are always acknowledged, but are never the focus. This boils my blood every time I hear it.
TechCrunch’s piece today throws it out there the most brazenly via its headline: “Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Until Women are as Ambitious as Men, They’re Not Going to Achieve as Much.” Ironically, I read this just hours after reading part of the Catalyst study “The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?” (short answer: not as much as you think.)
According to the Catalyst study, women are already as ambitious as men, but it’s not paying off:
We found that women were less satisfied with their careers than men, which suggests that they aren’t intentionally seeking slower career tracks. If they were, we’d expect them to be as satisfied as men with their advancement and compensation growth.
…Women were also less satisfied than men with their salary and rate of compensation growth. …This suggests that women likely were not seeking out lower-paying career tracks and, therefore, accepting of and satisfied with their lower compensation. Rather, they likely were less satisfied with their salary and compensation growth when they compared themselves to others in their field and at their level.
July’s New Yorker piece did an excellent job of covering Sandberg’s rise to the top, and while I have no doubts about her qualifications, she had so many doors opened for her thanks to her connections with mentor Lawrence Summers (former Harvard president, as well as former member of the Clinton and Obama administrations). Now that she’s at the top, Sandberg is clearly eager to bring more women up with her – and I love that about her. It’s really great to see a woman at the top being so open about this issue; my concern is that her messaging hurts more than it helps when it puts so much of the responsibility for changing things on ambitious women who are already stretched to their limits and not reaping the rewards.
The two key critiques of Sandberg’s messaging, nicely covered in the New Yorker piece, are that she does not give enough credit to the value of her connections (Larry Summers as a mentor) in providing opportunities that equally qualified, but less-connected women simply aren’t being offered. She also diminishes the impact of the institutions which keep women from moving ahead, acknowledging their existence but choosing to step aside from the topic pretty quickly. Maybe it’s a matter of not biting the hand that feeds her (since I can’t imagine Sandberg hasn’t been exposed to a ridiculous amount of sexism in her time at the top of the boys’ club, but perhaps her world has really been that extraordinarily privileged), but we’re setting women up for so much frustration and grief when we don’t acknowledge the big picture. The Occupy Wall Street movement has also contained elements of that frustration and grief on a broader scale: ambitious individuals (male and female) who have been told they’re in a meritocracy and have made sacrifices and followed all the rules, but to little avail. Sandberg’s overall message feels disingenuous and unrealistic, and like many of the OWSers I’m left feeling jaded.
My time at Google exposed me briefly to the world of the ultra-privileged, and I can say pretty confidently that the people at the company were just as talented and ambitious as they thought they were. But there was a sense of entitlement (versus gratitude) among so many of them; it was such a weird bubble of elitism and privilege that didn’t acknowledge all of the institutional barriers that can keep driven people from the so-called promised land. My brief contact with the ultra-elite continues to color my perceptions of the people who have “made it”, and there aren’t many people who really give adequate emphasis to the systemic factors that allowed them opportunities to prove themselves.
Of course, I also know that I’m probably not in Sandberg’s intended audience – I don’t want to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. I consider myself an ambitious person in recovery, and have been since the start of my college years. I (anecdotally) suspect manypeople with the level of ambition to get to the level Sandberg’s at to have some degree of personality or other emotional disorder, as has been the case for most of the really ambitious people I’ve been close to (including myself), and the rewards for that level of ambition just don’t seem worth the health risk. So my career goals aren’t about ascending the corporate ladder; I’m more interested in passion and making impactful change regardless of rank, and while that probably will include taking on more responsibilities at some point, maintaining a healthy balance is always going to matter more to me. That said, I’m probably still outside of the standard deviation when it comes to ambition; I am a single woman in her late 20′s who doesn’t see starting a family as a higher priority than my career at present, and I’ve been the most ambitious person in many of my social groups (but not professional groups) for most of my life.
I understand that “It’s not your fault” is far less actionable and motivating than “You can do it,” but I really wouldn’t mind a bit more of the former from Sandberg, because she’s such an incredible woman and I think her end goal for women in leadership deserves the attention it’s getting. I just hope her perspective will change over time: she’s an outstanding public speaker and I think she’s capable of acknowledging the wounds ambitious women have suffered under the status quo while still inspiring action. My dream Sandberg speech would provide equal parts acknowledgement / healing with motivation / calls to personal accountability, and maybe someday we’ll see it.