I have long expressed strong opinions about the importance of diversity in the workplace, was the co-founder of an organization devoted to making technology more accessible to women and believe the “likability double standard” almost all of us hold about ambitious women vs. men needs to be smashed into a million pieces.

And yet, I’m here to confess: I have judged Sheryl Sandberg.

I, like many of her critics, wondered whether, with the release of her new book and media tour, she had chosen a hot-button issue to advance her professional goals. I judged her as someone who was wealthy and out of touch, someone who had simplified a complex problem into a two-word catchphrase. I did not see her as someone who was doing good – I saw her as someone with a personal agenda.

Taking the plane back from South by Southwest today, reading the continued coverage of the release of Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and thinking about my own ambivalent reaction, I came to a terrible, shocking realization. I had defaulted to the success/likability double standard Sandberg references so frequently: the more successful women are, the less people like them. I judged Sheryl Sandberg, someone I have only met once, (and questioned her motivation) because I didn’t have warm, fuzzy feelings about her.

Even though it feels quite awkward, this is something I think it’s my obligation to disclose. If a female founder and CEO, someone who actively talks, thinks and speaks about diversity issues, can fall into judgement of a prominent, successful woman in this way, what are we doing to other women in the workplace and elsewhere? I’ve seen everything from Mashable’s subtle mockery with “Gina Bianchini On Leaning In So Hard You Fall Flat On Your Face” to CNN’s hyperbolic and overly dramatic “Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg Suddenly In Crossfire” – the judgement is pervasive, and the whole conversation is truly a parable that illustrates an important part of Sandberg’s theory.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the debate around and reaction to Lean In is an amazing chance to recognize our own biases and get some corrective glasses. Whether you believe Sandberg has it right or not, she has exhibited tremendous leadership and started a timely and nuanced discussion around just what it is that holds women back (proposing that it’s often women themselves – something I don’t disagree with; how to get out of your own way is something everyone needs to learn). A renewed examination of how we work and relate to one another (men and women) is something that must happen if we’re going to get to anything like parity in the next hundred years.

And finally – the most deliciously ironic part of all this – one could credibly argue that the continued sharp criticism of Sheryl Sandberg and her new book is actually proof that she’s right.

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6 Comments

  1. Kim

    A fabulous post – very honest and authentic. I just started reading her book last night and I’m loving it so far. Although, it’s in a sometimes uncomfortable kind of way. I really think she’s on to something. We can blame men, society, the corporate structure, glass ceilings, and prejudices all we want. The truth is, what often (not always) holds women back is ourselves. The self-defeating inner dialogue we have with ourselves that tells us to keep quiet and “be a good girl.” I shudder when I think of this, but that’s exactly the dialogue I have with myself sometimes. The real challenge will be to see if we can not only change the dialogue in our heads – but if we can stop the cycle with the next generation of women: our daughters.

  2. Maggie Fox Author

    @Kim – thanks, it was an awkward realization for me, but very important to talk about. I’m not the only one, and until we acknowledge it in ourselves, it’s not going to change. Even just naming it helps, IMHO.

  3. Spot on, Maggie. I actually have a post going on Monday about Marissa Mayer, same issue I think with her bonus and the telework memo.

    The reality is if both Sheryl and Marissa were men, they might be called assholes (pardon my language). BUT, Sheryl would be the asshole who built a $100 billion IPO, and since the collapse has rebuilt shareholder value. Marissa would be the executive forging an incredible turnaround, the likes of which we have last seen at Ford with Alan Mullaly.

    Neither story would be a big deal, either.

    We have a big problem with the way media cover large companies led by women.

  4. Maggie Fox Author

    @Geoff – thank you, and you are right to bring Marissa Meyer into this. When was the last time publications and reporters devoted so much space to the childcare arrangements of a male executive??

    I think calling it out, by being honest about our own unconscious biases, is what will help change this. I believe that most men (and women) want women to succeed – we need to examine whether we’re actually walking that talk.

  5. Ya know though, I am not sure if this reaction, for me, is contained to women. People can be good CEOs but I generally judge all of them as self-serving and not to be trusted – especially the larger the company. They actually have to go out of their way to write and act otherwise. Most of my harshest reactions are actually towards the arrogant jerk Male CEOs – like Ellison or Hurd.

    For me it wouldn’t be if I judge her this way – it would be do I judge her differently than I do men at her level.

    I judge Marissa about the day care because Yahoo does not provide it for all it’s workers. The same way I judge CEOs who have corporate jet’s yet make everyone else fly in economy. I think it is great that she has day care for her kids, but she should do it for all her employees as well – not just her female ones at that. As to her no work from home policy – I think it makes total sense for Yahoo and I applaud her for that.

    All that said – I do still think there is a bias against women in tech as leaders though probably less so than in other fields like manufacturing or Energy. I should also caveat that to just the US (and I would guess EU, CA, and NZ but I don’t know enough to say for sure).

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