Don’t knock Sandberg – we can learn from her

The Facebook COO advises women to "lean in" more in the workplace and start matching men when it comes to self-promotion

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Hands up if you would like a better-paid, more fulfilling job. Yes? What about more flexible working hours so you can spend more time with your family – yes to that, too? Now keep your hand up if you think you “have it all”. If your hand is still raised, you are not only very lucky, it’s possible that your name is Sheryl Sandberg and you are the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

Sandberg has written a book called Lean In in which she urges women to show more self-confidence and ambition at work. If we want to get to the top, we need to put up our hands more, and “lean in” at round-table meetings. We need to ask for a pay rise, go for that promotion, and not leave the aggressive power-play to the men. To accompany the book, Sandberg has launched a networking project, Lean In Circles, where women can get together to share positive experiences about achieving more at work.

Sandberg’s ideas have not been universally welcomed. Who is this fabulously wealthy 43-year-old executive, say her critics, to preach to women less successful than her about getting to the top? Sandberg has two children and gets home for bedtime every evening – something not all of us working mothers can do. Surely she can only “have it all” because she and her husband, David Goldberg, the chief executive of SurveyMonkey, are highly paid and can employ a retinue of staff to help them?

Meanwhile, in words apparently timed to hit back at Sandberg, Erin Callan, the former finance chief of Lehman Brothers, says she wished she hadn’t worked so hard, and instead allowed more time to have children. Writing in The New York Times, Callan, who at 47 wants to start a family, said: “I didn’t have to be on my BlackBerry from my first moment in the morning to my last moment at night. I didn’t have to eat the majority of meals at my desk.”

But are those who object to Sandberg missing something? Should we really be denying the right of the internet’s most successful woman, listed by Forbes as the fifth most powerful female in the world, to tell the rest of us how it can be done? Sandberg has got to where she is through hard work and ambition, not inherited wealth. Don’t other women who want to be successful need to learn from her achievements? Don’t they also need to learn from her mistakes – which include harbouring low expectations of herself and working too hard during her three-month maternity leave after the birth of her first child?

Sandberg insists – despite appearances – that it is impossible to “have it all”. Similarly, her answer to the question “Can we do it all?” is no. Sacrifices have to be made. “Trying to do it all and expecting that it all can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment,” Sandberg says. “Perfection is the enemy.” Her balancing act seems to depend on getting home for her children’s bedtime and then working on email until late in the evening. It is not perfect, but it can be done.

When you are on the board, like Sandberg, it is not difficult to dash home at 5.30pm in time to run a bath for your child

Sandberg is also under fire for putting the blame on women themselves – rather than employers and governments – for their failure to get promoted. They’re just not trying hard enough. But again, I’d look at this another way. Yes, the Facebook high-flyer is calling for women to be more ambitious – but in addition to, rather than in place of, employers and governments doing more. Sandberg is critical of companies’ inflexibility over childcare and parental leave, and of their overlooking women for promotion. These external barriers already get attention, she says. She is now highlighting the “barriers that exist within ourselves… by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in”.

In some sectors, like the City or law, it is difficult to see how a woman can work more flexibly without being punished by her employers, or by a heavy workload. When you are on the board, like Sandberg, it is not difficult to dash home at 5.30pm in time to run a bath for your child. And, of course, life is easier for Sandberg than, say, a woman starting a cleaning job at 5am so her shift can finish in time for her to pick up her children from school, as my grandmother, a mother of nine, did in her day.

We shouldn’t hold up women like Sandberg in a “I don’t know how she does it” way. But any woman – with or without children – should still welcome Lean In as a guide to chipping away at the glass ceiling. We cannot wait for governments to make their minds up about boardroom quotas, or for employers to be more proactive. The glass ceiling is not going to suddenly open up, revealing a staircase towards a glittering mezzanine. We have to do some of the work ourselves.

Sandberg’s central mission is that, if we want her help, she’s offering it – not just with words of advice, but with practical tools via networking circles. Having punched a hole in the glass ceiling, Sandberg could easily climb through and leave the rest of us below, staring up at her. But she is hanging on to the ceiling with one arm and reaching down with the other, trying to help women less successful than she is to climb up. The onus is now on us to put up our hands.

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