Let’s give Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer a break


Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer appears on NBC News' "Today" show in New York, February 20, 2013. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
Jena McGregor
Columnist March 1, 2013

What a week it’s been for the conversation about women and work.

First, the backlash began for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” in advance of its March 11 release. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that the emerging guru on women’s careers — who is also one of the world’s wealthiest women — “doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign.” Others scoffed that “this is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line.”

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Meanwhile, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer seems to be assiduously trying not to get dragged into the same debate, even as her controversial ban on working from home sparked a firestorm. In a PBS documentary that premiered this week, she said that while she believes in equal rights, she doesn’t consider herself a feminist or “have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.” Translation: Don’t try to make me the leader of your tribe just because I was the first pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company, thank you very much.

Who’s right? Sandberg to put herself at the center of the conversation, or Mayer to avoid it?

Quite frankly, they both are in the right. And the sooner we stop calling Sandberg too rich to preach about how women should get ahead, and stop chiding Mayer for doing things that don’t help the broader cause of women in the workplace, the better. The more we hang all our crusaders or, conversely, expect all our pioneers to be poster girls, the less other women will seek to fill either role.

Yes, Sandberg may not be the perfect spokeswoman for a revolution in the workplace. Between the private jets, the millions in Facebook stock and all her powerful friends, this celebrity COO is not representative of most working women. But here’s the thing: Her argument carries so much weight partially because of the rarity of what she’s already achieved. And at least she’s talking about it, bringing attention to the abysmal number of women at the top of Corporate America and urging professional women to leverage what’s within their control. Some may begrudge her riches or her relationships, but she’s using her celebrity status to shine a light on an issue that needs it.

So doesn’t that mean Mayer should too? Not necessarily. You may disagree with her decision to end telecommuting arrangements at Yahoo (as I have), or balk at her comment that feminism is a “negative word” (as I do). But if Mayer doesn’t want to carry the banner for young working mothers, she doesn’t have to. In changing Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, she’s apparently doing what she thinks is best for the company’s success — even if that’s debatable. After all, no one will remember how she helped pave the way for women of childbearing age to be chief executives if she fails at the job herself.

Moreover, expecting every high-ranking executive woman to become a public spokesperson for the glass ceiling debate not only places unfair pressure on them, but on the women in line behind them. Sure, it might be great if more spoke up. But we don’t expect men who hold major CEO jobs to become role models for social issues at the same time they try to manage such a demanding job. If we want every young woman who reaches the top of the corporate suite to write books and grace magazine covers as a champion of feminism, even fewer women will “lean in” and go after those jobs.

So enough with the how-dare-she critiques of Sandberg’s “Lean In” project. And enough with the chatter about whether or not Mayer’s actions as CEO of one company are going to send us back to the dark ages. Instead, let’s cheer Sandberg, whatever her advantages, for speaking up about women getting ahead at the same time we allow Mayer to keep quiet as she tries to do her job.

Read also:

Yahoo’s perplexing ban on working from home

“Lean In” is full of good intentions but rife with contradictions

Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the perfect feminist. So what?

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