There’s no aphorism that describes successful women more than “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Yet, thankfully we keep doing. As we are Millennial women who’ve worked under plenty of women, and are now on our second female CEO, we’ve reaped the benefits of this “doing” firsthand. It was a lot harder to be in the workforce 30, 20 or even 10 years ago — sheerly as a numbers game.
As women in our early 30s, we’re just beginning the adventure of being successful females with families, and we appreciate that there are more of us around these days. But to us the discussion around this is still somewhat stilted, as there is a generation gap still not accounted in the narrative.
We’re not the first women to find something very wrong with media criticism of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” and her efforts to help empower professional women. Sandberg postulates that many women tend to not “lean in” to their careers. Instead of leaning back, she encourages women to remain focused on their professional work and not to neglect that work in favor of responsibilities with family and home.
Because she herself is in a very privileged position, it’s easy for critics to find fault with her approach, as they feel like a woman who can easily afford two nannies, a cook, a driver and more doesn’t represent the norm. This despite the cultural idea that as a woman, Sheryl Sandberg by default represents all women.
Yes, Sandberg has luxuries that many of us don’t have — but she didn’t achieve those things without sacrifice, diligence and work. Instead of basking in the fruits of her labors, she’s taking her platform and success and attempting to make younger women’s professional lives better by sharing lessons she has learned.
Sandberg and other tall poppies like Marissa Mayer entered the workforce when there were very few women in leadership positions — especially in heavily male-dominated fields like technology. This led to those women being seen as exceptions to the proper order. Exceptional women became tokens, as if there were only room for one in a power position, one per company, one per board.
The backlash that’s happening to Sandberg (and Mayer and so on) is what happens when one of us stands out, perhaps because women have historically pulled one another down to compete. But back in the day the fight was over men or other scarce resources, not the corner office.
This competitive tendency might explain why we ourselves have found it extremely difficult to find older female mentors. There have been few women in our professional lives who wanted to invest in our careers. They were too busy tearing us down or scared that we would somehow rise above them to take the time. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Women leaders are increasing in frequency: There’s now room at the table for more than one of us. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Right now Sheryl Sandberg is an outlier. But, as Box communication head Ashley Mayer remarked, we need more outliers like this, especially if we want professional success to be a given for our daughters. These are the women we want to be. These are the women who defy convention to try to improve the lives of women in future generations. These are the role models we see, who prove there’s space for many of us at the top.
It’s problematic when the criticism of these outliers comes from people we suspect are subjectively defensive of their own positions instead of objectively judging the ideas on their own merits. Instead of applauding efforts to change the culture, they nitpick them, find flaws that don’t even exist and literally twist quotes.
“There’s an uncomfortable truth in what Sandberg’s saying, and a lot of the blowback is because of our collective squirminess with the subject,” Reuters’ Megan McCarthy wrote. “So, critics focus on the things they can grasp, like her privilege, and then make the argument about that.”
“But her privilege is beside the point, ” she emphasized, “The idea that women can be seen as individuals in our professional careers is audacious and bold. There’s power in the thought that we can shape our situations around our expectations instead of always searching for a spot where we fit in. Audacious, bold, and powerful ideas aren’t usually well received.”
For this to be a non-issue for our daughters, we have to avoid the Prisoner’s dilemma of feminism, “If I sell out all the other women, then I get away with it, and I get the “reward” of being accepted.” We need to realize that we can mentor others, men and women, and that their success won’t take away from ours. In fact, it may increase it.
As for gaining power in your own job, your career, it’s sort of like the “put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help others breathe” instruction on airplanes, our editorial director and Gen Xer Fara Warner noted. “Respect yourself, respect your work and act like an adult. Lean in all you want but lean in the way you want the world to see you…not what you think the world wants to see.”
For women of all generations, and the men who love and work with us, our best weapon is the awareness of repeating these destructive patterns — and honestly analyzing and counter-programming this behavior when it happens. Otherwise we’ll backslide.
Lean in to this, at least — because it’s better than the alternative.