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Sheryl Sandberg – something not quite right


Finally I got round to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (having read loads of reviews about it).  And some things I was glad about.

Thanks Sheryl for finally speaking out. Some of us have been saying the same things for years but you are the COO of a large global organisation so chances are someone will listen and at least realise that this conversation isn’t over.

Thanks Sheryl for including tons of research and relevant stats which can silence those who still think a) there is already an equal playing field – women have equal chances for promotion and b) we don’t need more women in leadership positions anyway. So no need to keep on arguing about THAT. Mind you some of the facts are still disturbing e.g. the US is the only industrialised nation in the world that doesn’t have a paid maternity leave policy – I mean – really? Unbelievable!

Thanks Sheryl for the message you gave women in your original TED talk telling them to have the ambition to run the world – “Because the world needs you to change it. Women all around the world are counting on you”.

And women around the world Sheryl were counting on YOU and in some ways you let them down.

Firstly, you let them down by suggesting that if only women would take more charge of their careers then they could achieve whatever they wanted hence your title “Lean In”. But we all know that there are two distinct sides to this question of women’s advancement – one is what women can do for themselves and the other is the culture of the organisations they work for which means that it is nigh impossible to expect women to be authentic leaders (‘authentic’ is now lauded as the critical quality for leadership) when operating in an inauthentic environment.

Yes, there ARE things that women can do to reverse the negative conditioning they have had which leaves them lacking in self-esteem. What you are saying here is not new – some of us have been working in this field for many years and it isn’t about ‘fixing the women’ i.e. separating them out to give them some kind of remedial training so they can subsequently join the ma(i)nstream again. This work is about renewal not development. Women have been developed to death. They need renewal and support- to remember to tap into the inner strengths and resources they already possess and put it to good use in their organisations. And support because they are taking their newly found strengths back into the archaic, masculine cultures that have no room for them.

You also let them down by mentioning more than once ‘of course organisations need to change’ in an off hand, casual way. Your Lean In strategy will encourage women to break into a prison from which they will be unable to break out unless they leave the organisation. The prison needs knocking down! Why aren’t you taking your peer COO’s and CEO’s to task for how little they are doing instead of talking to women about how sisters can do it for themselves. Since your book was published your peer whom you quote as a role model Merissa Mayer banned working from home at Yahoo – guess who will be most affected by THAT?

And the final way you let them down was by your own role-modelling. You work for Facebook and let’s not forget that Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook by rating girls’ physical attractiveness on his University Campus – not a good sign regarding his attitudes towards women. So it proved when FB condoned images of violence against women – calling it ‘free speech’ and saying they couldn’t be classed as hate postings. So they were just fun were they? But where were YOU Sheryl – you were speaking and presenting about empowering women while your own organisation refused to budge – even in the face of 60,000 tweets, 500 emails and 100 women’s groups and social justice groups protesting – until advertisers threatened to withdraw their adverts from FB. So much for women’s empowerment! What moved FB was financial losses. Why weren’t YOU leading the campaign to change the FB policy (no-one really expected Mark Zuckerberg to care). And while we’re talking about FB how come you are the only woman on the Board when 57% of FB users are women?

As for your own story – I appreciate that asking a woman employee about her child rearing plans was a genuine desire on your part to do as much as you could to make sure her childbearing didn’t become career limiting – but a tad naive on your part I feel to think that other managers would be so understanding and not use the information to NOT promote the woman. That’s why there had to be a law about it!

There were so many things that disturbed me about your story: being spoken to like a dog “Sandberg get over here” and doing nothing about it; fearing being sacked because you once publicly said you left the office at 5.30pm…but I don’t want to be picky.

It’s great that this conversation about women is now live again. It’s just unfortunate that some organisations will feel that they’ve been let off the hook. You say that the head of Vodafone showed your TED talk to his senior management team because he shared your belief that women sometimes hold themselves back. I wonder if he also breathed a sigh of relief that he was off the hook – it’s all about the women – WE don’t need to change. Until gender balance is considered to be a strategic initiative for which there is a budget, nothing will change. (see for Avivah Wittenberg-Cox’s excellent blog posts on this topic). Diversity & Inclusion initiatives were dead in the water until they became strategic.

Yet here you are Sheryl, working at a strategic level in FB and what have you actually done for women besides getting them a parking space near the main door when they are pregnant? I’m glad your obvious talent and dedication has brought you the rewards of a great career. Margaret Thatcher’s did that too. But she did very little for women.


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  • Comments

    1. Melanie Gulliver says:

      Well said Géraldine! I hope this blog gets seen by many.. Sheryl should be doing much much more than sitting in her glorified chair and blaming women for not advancing.

      • Geraldine Bown says:

        Thanks Melanie. It seems that there are many Lean In groups now which I am sure women find helpful as they always find the support of other women helpful. But I fear that these will be seen as self-help groups and will lead organisations to think that they need not do anything about gender balance. When I started in the late 1980s women’s groups were seen to be nothing to do with organisational responsibilities. I – and others – fought hard not only to get women-only training recognised as important to organisational success and a valid and valuable part of a training strategy, but also to pressure organisations to make significant changes in how they view women’s contributions and to take a hard long look at their policies regarding women. Now we have come full circle and the self-help Lean In groups are again on the sidelines of strategic policy making. Still much work to be done!

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