Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer: “Lean In” and Get Your Butt to the Office!

Mon, February 25, 2013

Changing the World, Economy, Feminism, Women Online

Lean in! Take charge! No fear!

Out with flex-time! In with face time!

These are the messages two of the highest profile working mothers in America are sending to the rest of us. If  Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, and Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s Chief Executive Officer, have their way, women in the workplace will remake themselves in their C-Suite images which, sadly, is looking like something from the 1980′s movie Working Girl.

The funny thing about their recent messages to working women is this –  some of their sentiments sound an awful lot like what I heard as a young journalist and then as a new attorney in a large law firm decades ago.

What’s old is new again?

Whether it’s fair or not, I expect more of high-powered women leaders who also happen to be mothers when it comes to understanding what’s realistic for most women in the workforce — especially when the online community of women has rallied around them in the past, as happened when Mayer announced shortly after becoming Yahoo!’s CEO, that she was pregnant and would only be taking a couple of weeks off for maternity leave.

As for Sandberg, her new book, Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead, (which I read after borrowing an advance review copy) makes some good points about women needing to take charge of their careers, and not being afraid to “lean in” to the challenges of managing a professional life with family responsiblities, but it’s hard to focus on her positive points when, for most of the book, she tries really hard to portray herself as just another ordinary working mom who’s overcome the same problems the rest of us face. That’s a tough sell, as she shares anecdotes like the one about how happy she was that on a business trip with her kids she was on a private jet, and not a commercial flight, when she discovered her daughter had head lice (WHEW! Dodged a bullet on spreading those nits!).

As for Mayer, Yahoo! announced late last week that all flex-time and remote working arrangements would be rescinded, and if you want to keep your job at Yahoo!, you have to be in the office every day. Even though there is plenty of research that shows employers and employees benefit in productivity when certain flexible work arrangements are in place, in a lively Faecbook discussion, I questioned how many women must be feeling today who came to Mayer’s defense of her personal parenting/career choice when she said she was only taking two weeks off after having her baby.  Her baby, her decision.  Sure, we all knew she had a boat load of help, but whatever works for her, right?

As one friend who is been a working mother in the corporate world remarked about Mayer :

“While I do understand that this is first and foremost a business decision that Mayer has made for Yahoo!, impacts both men and women, and may be in the best long-term interests for the company, it is impossible to not also view it through a feminist lens that understands that working mothers and two-income families have been among the chief beneficiaries of flexible working arrangements. And it is a shame that we can’t incorporate these values into business success.”

Mayer, in making her corporate decision, and Sandberg, in trying to craft a new social movement by using her life as example, are both blithely ignoring the realities of life for the vast majority of working families today.

Pregnancies have complications. Babies might be easy in some senses (they are portable for a while), but kids have issues and problems and illnesses and conditions.  There are families who having double care-giving obligations — for young kids and for aging parents.  Yes, we should expect our spouses and partners to be involved in dealing with these things and all the other complications of life, but it is never as easy as it sounds. Both Mayer and Sandberg, at a time when they are trying to demonstrate their own leadership abilities,  have made their tone-deafness abundantly clear.

Mayer and Sandberg may be very well-intentioned — looking out for shareholders and encouraging women to aim for more — but the ways in which they are going about these two goals will only take us back to the time when women had to sneak out of the office if they needed to be home early (oh, wait, even Sandberg admits she did that) and bringing back that mom guilt I thought we’d all agreed wasn’t good for anybody.

Image via PhDinParenting

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15 Responses to “Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer: “Lean In” and Get Your Butt to the Office!”

  1. Ananda Leeke Says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have been a bit out of the loop on this one. I am glad you woke me up. I agree with you totally!

  2. PunditMom Says:

    Ananda, I know we can’t rely on every individual business woman to look out for all working women, but it sure would be nice to see some high-profilers like Sandbger and Mayer be a bit more tuned in to how they could use their influence to lift all boats!

  3. Mona Gable Says:


    Love this post. We were just talking about doing something on Mayer and Sandberg this morning. I’d love to syndicate this on BlogHer–and pay you of course.

    Let me know!


  4. Shani Gilchrist Says:

    So glad to finally see someone speak to the naive short-sightedness these women are promoting. They are completely missing the point of the results of the feminist movement and assuming that children will remain in their portable baby carriers for 18 years. I’ve been fuming about this since Mayer announced that she would only be taking a couple of weeks of maternity leave. At the most selfish level, one has to at least heal from the physical and emotional upheaval of childbirth! It took years to get corporations to recognize the needs of families, and now these two undermining the hard work that made it possible for mothers and fathers to succeed in the office while still remaining involved parents.

  5. Benjie Guy Says:

    Dear Pundit Mom,

    Are you available for an interview re:the Yahoo! remote-working ban – on the BBC World Service today or tomorrow? It’s for our radio show Newshour, which goes out live between 8-9pm GMT (3-4 EST)

    Let me know!


  6. Susan W Says:

    Thank you for your article! I am a successful director at a healthcare company and I’m considered a high performer. I am willing to work 12 hour days as long as I can do some of it during off hours, but I’d like to pick up my kids from school and spend a few hours a day with them. Is that too much to ask? I need flexibility to make it all work and Mayer and Sandberg are not helping.

  7. deb Says:

    ugh. these two women make me a little ill. perhaps it shouldn’t, but it burns so much more when these kinds of directives and policy decisions come from women. I haven’t read sandberg’s book yet, but will as soon as I can get it from the library (not buying it). From what I’ve read, “Lean in” sounds like another form of blame-the-victim – as if women aren’t working hard enough (or as hard as her).


  8. Emie Says:

    Athough I may not agree with everything Marissa Mayer does, I do respect her enormously. She is a straight shooter and worked hard managing teams and writing technical code in her previous jobs. She fully understands products and can explain corporate strategy, data, and numbers, and where she needs to take the company. Her employees respect her.

    Sandberg however is a totally different story. She doesn’t have the respect of employees, many of whom have no idea what she actually does at Facebook. Unless you are part of the elite social scene, she really doesn’t want anything to do with you. Basically, she’s a total phony.

  9. Emie Says:

    Athough I may not agree with everything Marissa Mayer does, I do respect her enormously. She is a straight shooter and worked hard managing teams and writing technical code in her previous jobs. She fully understands products and can explain corporate strategy, data, and numbers, and where she needs to take the company. Her employees respect her.

    Sandberg however is a totally different story. She doesn’t have the respect of employees, many of whom have no idea what she actually does at Facebook, other than collect a paycheck. Unless you are part of the elite social scene, she really doesn’t want anything to do with you. Basically, she’s a total phony.

  10. Neil Says:

    The problem with both of these ladies is their backgrounds and histories, in that they are both utterly divorced from any of the harsher realities of an average person’s working life.

    This isn’t a reflection on them, you can only see through the eyes you’ve got. But inevitably people like this try and give regular people advice, and it’s very rare that they have anything useful to say.

    Mayer got hired as Google’s 20th employee! Her view of women in the workplace is about as likely to be accurate as a lottery winner’s view of gambling.

  11. christina Says:

    I get so tired of hearing that women just need to work harder, and this is the message I hear from successful women. As if we’re all sitting around whining about work instead of busting our butts every day. Surely we have the brainpower to come up with something besides “work harder.”

    I don’t think Marissa Mayer is obligated to do anything but make the best business decisions for her company. But I don’t see the ban on telecommuting as a great business decision–not great for employee morale.

  12. DC Says:

    Marissa Meyer has a responsibility to her employees and her shareholders. She was tasked to turn Yahoo around and what she discovered is that the work from home employees by and large were NOT doing their job. They weren’t logging in as expected and were not being held accountable. That’s. an easy decision. No one will be complaining about “work from home” when Yahoo no longer exists and the business didn’t turn around leaving thousands of employees with no job. Would I have communicated it differently ? Yes. But she is a CEO with a responsibility to keep her company running for her employees and shareholders. Period. How she manages her family life is none of our business. And who made Marissa Meyer the poster child for working mothers? Did she ask for it or claim it? No. Funny — I don’t see working men in middle management whining about decisions made by male CEOs as “unfair” to their gender.

    Working from home is a benefit, much like 401k matching or vision. Not every company offers it. Some do. In certain industries, you may sacrifice access to key talent if you don’t have it or it may not matter at all. But that is part of the process of how a company chooses to leverage their competitive advantage in the market place. And believe it or not — they are some professions where it is impossible. But I factor WFH into any negotiation for my job and assign a value to it in negotiations.

    About two years ago, I made a decision to take a very demanding job. It was made in consultation with my husband who stepped up dramatically because I am the primary breadwinner and he recognizes that fact. Women have supported their husbands at home for generations as they have run board rooms and companies. No one talks about them being bad fathers or dissects their commitment to their children. So it’s time for the boys to step up like women have done for 50+ years — make some school lunches and run the car pools. It’s time for women. And studies show that corporations with more women in the c suite perform better. And that is good news for employees and shareholders and the economy.

  13. Chloe Jeffreys Says:

    I found you in a very circuitous way and am so glad I did.

    I’m on my way out the door and don’t have time for a cogent comment, but I will say that I agree with you.

  14. Chloe Jeffreys Says:

    I’d like to finish my thought now, if you don’t mind.

    Arguments like “lean in” and “it’s time for men to do their share” deny the realities of biology. Having babies and children IS a different reality for many women than it is for many men. Carrying a human inside of you, laboring and giving birth, feeding that human from food that comes from inside you? These are deeply meaningful experiences, and solely under the purview of women.

    The problem is that women are equal to men, but that men aren’t equal to women, not when it comes to childbearing. They can’t get pregnant, they can’t grow a human being inside their bodies, they don’t give birth, they can’t breastfeed. They don’t have the same biological experience of childbearing.

    This has nothing to do with love or commitment, this has to do with hormones and bonding and attachment.

    I had planned to return to work after my first was born. I’d even interviewed several potential child-care providers and settled on a center located right on campus where I was.

    It seemed like a happy place, and the staff seemed great.

    And then I had my daughter. By the times she was five weeks old I was head-over-heels in love with her, and the thought of handing her off to strangers to love on and cuddle and, yes, raise, brought me literal physical pain. I couldn’t do it.

    I cried for days trying to figure out how to tell my husband that I just couldn’t leave my baby with others. Finally, I told him. I sobbed as I explained that I loved her too much and couldn’t bear it. That I’d give up every single luxury if only I could stay at home raising her.

    Women who don’t feel this way about their babies are a mystery to me. I can’t understand giving a newborn two weeks and then back to the salt mines. I have NEVER, EVER, EVER loved any job that much. Maybe that’s a fault that lies within me.

    But neither was I well-compensated enough that I could hire a private jet, or a passel of personal nannies so that maybe it didn’t feel like I was abandoning my child into the hands of strangers. I could afford “decent” childcare, but that isn’t the sort of childcare I was able to afford.

    Now my daughter is 24. She is a new mother, herself. And I watch her falling in love with her own newborn. And the circle of life goes on.

    Women give life. This is a role that can’t just so easily be hired out to someone else. And while men make wonderful fathers, and can nurture and love, this biological drive to love and nurture as a mother does is often not the same.

    This isn’t something for us to march on Washington and demand men do so we can be more like men. Why can’t we insist on a society that takes the female biological drive to birth and nurture as a mother just as seriously?

    Demanding that women act more like men is NOT equality. It’s just a new sort of slavery for women.

  15. Renee Says:

    I loved this response to these two story lines but I truly adore Chloe’s reflection. THIS is the argument that I’ve been working on in my head since I returned to work two months ago after having my now five-month-old son. I get so tired of hearing that if you love your babies, if you genuinely want to spend time with them and raise them, then you are less than those women who can inexplicably move between “mommy” and “CEO” without a hiccup. Perhaps it is easy for some personality types but we need to find ways to honor intelligent, skilled, professional women who ALSO find deep meaning and purpose in being a mother. Where do we fit into the picture?

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