In addition to being publisher and chief executive of the newspaper division of The Washington Post Co., I’m a single mom with three kids (ages 8, 11 and 12), three dogs, two hamsters (actually, one escaped, so we’re down to one), a guinea pig and a rabbit. So, as the debate about work-life balance rages on — this latest round prompted by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg — I can vouch that a woman can have both a family and a demanding, interesting job. But there is no balance.
Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In,” arrived in bookstores less than two weeks ago, yet it has already received a degree of publicity most authors only dream of. It has also touched a nerve.
There are two main lines of criticism. The first is that Sandberg unfairly blames women when she argues that they need to change the way they behave in the workplace to better position themselves for leadership roles. The second is that her advice applies only to an elite circle of women.
I should say up front that I consider Sheryl a friend and that her husband, Dave Goldberg, is on the Washington Post Co. board, while my uncle Don Graham serves on the Facebook board. Friendship aside, though, I think Sheryl is right that we, as women, tend to hold ourselves back.
I see it all the time. Women are often meeker in meetings and afraid to ask for raises and promotions. I’ve told countless female colleagues to stop apologizing when they ask for more. It’s not personal, it’s business.
I don’t mean to pretend that I’ve gotten to where I am through hard work and ambition alone. Mine is not your average career path. I’m lucky to have been born into a matriarchal family led by strong women, from my grandmother, Katharine Graham, to my mother, Lally Weymouth (whose interviews appear on these pages). I was given tremendous opportunities and welcomed into the family business.
I also absolutely believe that changing corporate policies and corporate culture would help address the widely acknowledged dearth of women in senior positions at U.S. companies. But we still need to sit at the table, speak up (without speaking a sentence in the form of a question, one of my pet peeves) and not be afraid that someone might not like us.
The critique that “Lean In” applies to a narrow audience is more compelling. This is a charge that was leveled at “The Feminine Mystique” 50 years ago and at many of the “mommy wars” books in recent years. Sheryl anticipates it in her introduction. Although she says that she is writing “for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top,” she acknowledges that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet” and offers the caveat that “parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work.”