Sheryl Sandberg 'Lean In': Media Needs to Stop Pitting Her Against Working Women


As you likely already know, Sheryl Sandberg has written a book called Lean In about women in the workplace. Anne-Marie Slaughter has a different opinion, but respects what she is trying to do. Marissa Mayer, who has famously said she's no feminist, recently announced a ban on telecommuting at Yahoo!. The mainstream media would like us all to think of them as cat-fighting harridans, backstabbing b*tches, or simply “men” for having business ideas geared toward maximizing profits.

The preponderance of headlines and conversations that I’ve heard look and sound like this: “Marissa Mayer: Yahoo's new CEO reignites working mother debate,” “Working Mother Smackdown,” “Slaughter versus Sandberg: Can Women Have it All,” “Marissa Mayer's Job Is to Be CEO — Not to Make Life Easier for Working Moms,” “Mayer Sparks Debate Among Working Moms,” Marissa Mayer Disses Working Moms Again,” Marissa Mayer Faces Backlash From Working Moms,” “Yahoo CEO Bans Working Moms from Home,” “In this corner there’s Sheryl Sandberg. In this corner there’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. And then there’s reality,” and my personal favorite, from Parent Society, whose tagline is “we’re all in this together,” Marissa Mayer — A Man in Woman’s Clothing?

The real problem is not “working mothers,” or the efforts of individual women to address how they act at work. It’s not that Sheryl Sandberg is a rich white woman who is trying to raise awareness or that Marissa Mayer is one who is not. The real problem is that we continue to frame this entire debate in terms of women, their wombs, and their “natural” cattiness. 

Gender equality has stalled, as Stephanie Coontz so thoroughly explained recently, because we face intractable systemic biases that no amount of rich white woman bashing or sexist mommy war blather will ever solve. These biases make it impossible for us to move forward and create workplace structures and an economy that leverage everyone’s abilities equally and enable both men and women to achieve some semblance of work/life balance.  

In 20 years, the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers deal with their family and work demands. In a great example of American exceptionalism, we rank LAST among peer nations, actually, among nearly all nations, for work/family work policies. The particular dilemmas that working parents face, often the focus of these debates, only most dramatically illustrate problems that everyone faces. As Coontz put it, “Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.”

We are wasting everyone’s time and effort when we focus on the echo chamber of what two women — this week Sandberg and Slaughter, next week Mayer and whoever, are saying. What we need to be doing is dismantling systems based on sexist, complementarian gender roles and figuring out why American management teams, which are overwhelmingly male-dominated, refuse to adapt to modern life. We now know, without a shred of doubt, that boards with more women on them are more aggressive and profitable. Our problem isn’t the catfights. It's male-dominated boardrooms and management teams whose personal “family” values are crippling growth and limiting other people’s options.

Here’s some interesting information:

-Of Fortune's top 1,000 companies, only 14.3% have female board members.

-People managing boards, businesses and companies are overwhelmingly men (84%).

-A survey of 1,200 executives conducted by the Families and Work Institute revealed that 75% of these men had stay-at-home wives.

-According to a study conducted by researchers last year at Harvard University, New York University, and University of Utah, "Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace," men in traditional marriages, where wives do not work for compensation out of the home and whose role is as the primary and sole breadwinner, are actually hostile to women in the workplace, particularly in leadership roles, and are disinclined to create or enforce policies that help equality in the workplace. If they are hostile to women in the workplace, then they are hostile to men out of the workplace.

Headlines should say things like “All Male Management Team Limits Opportunities for Profit,” “Sexists at Helm of XYZ Co. to Have Compensation Tied to Board Diversity,” “Gender Imbalanced Management Cited as Gross Mismanagement in Replacement of CEO," and “Company Fails to Meet Gender Tipping Point Required by Annual Benchmark.” More women are joining boards and the ranks of upper management, but progress is absurdly slow. It’s gross mismanagement to continue to run companies with little or no diversity.

My husband and I are textbook examples of what Stephanie Coontz described above. With the exception of a cumulative nine months after the births of three children, I have been a working mother in virtually every configuration imaginable. I worked as a senior corporate executive, as a consultant, as a small business owner, and a freelancer. I’ve worked in offices with strict policies about showing up or not, in cooperative rent-a-desk spaces, in shared offices, in bathrooms. I’ve worked all day, half the day, all week, partial weeks, at night, and primarily on weekends.

During the 15 or so years of these adaptations, my husband primarily went to one office during “regular” work hours — long ones. He changed his work early in our marriage to reduce constant travel and certain types of work that made our home lives more stressful. He went to work and came home where he, too, fed, bathed, played with, and read to the children.

Our decisions about our work and family life were rational financial ones. At every stage we did what we thought would enable us to take care of our family and maximize our incomes, while maintaining a work/life balance that was a priority for us. We established parameters about travel for work, weekends, and dinner at home every night with kids. This meant we made sacrifices, but, in no uncertain terms, because of the way our workplaces are structured, it meant that I had to both be flexible and the one to take risks.

We need our media to focus on these statistics and deeply embedded systems and to run more headlines like these: “Yahoo’s Work-at-Home Ban: Why It’s a Working-Dad Issue Too,” “Double Duty: The Plight of the Working Dad,” “Am I A Working Dad?” “Dad’s Weigh in on Work/Life Balance,” and “The Daddy Dilemma: Why Men Face a ‘Flexibility Stigma’ at Work.”

We don’t have the luxury of talking anymore about Sandberg, Mayer, and their critics, or parsing the “why” when we should be talking about the “how.” However, this is indeed where we still appear to be.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Role/Reboot.