Sheryl Sandberg, privileged feminist

AMANDA WILSON
Last updated 05:00 07/04/2013
Sandberg
Reuters

Shining example: Sheryl Sandberg has advice for women wanting to make it to the top.

Sandberg
Business manual: Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, Random House, $36.99.

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The very idea of this book has been annoying people for months, long before they'd read it. The issue for Sheryl Sandberg's detractors is that she is a brilliant Harvard graduate, a daughter of wealthy parents, and an impeccably networked titan of Silicon Valley who has dared to produce a self-described "feminist manifesto of sorts".

The premise of this, her first book, is how to encourage more women to seek leadership roles. She seeks an equal world where women "take a seat at the table" and then "lean in". If the book isn't enough to get things started, she has launched support networks on Facebook, where she is chief operating officer, and groups called "Lean In Circles".

Seems harmless enough, so why all the glass shards stuck in her back?

In the United States, where Sandberg has had a stellar career, from her first job at the World Bank to US Treasury secretary Larry Summers' chief of staff, then to Google and now Facebook, the bile has spewed from bloggers through to the mighty New York Times, which ran a page-one piece that took out of context and truncated a Sandberg quote from a PBS documentary. It read: "I always thought I'd run a social movement" - an impossibly arrogant statement if correct. It wasn't. Her full quote continued: ". . . which meant basically work at a non-profit. I never thought I'd work in the corporate sector."

The Times later apologised for the error, but the hounds were off and running, decrying the gall of a C-suite executive who hardly represents the average low-paid woman or struggling working mother. It's as if one cannot be a feminist unless trying to improve the lot of the underprivileged while wearing sack cloth and sensible shoes.

Like most female leaders, Sandberg has been attracting venom for years, so she dons her flak jacket in the opening chapter. Unfortunately, she never really takes it off. For every strong point that might upset someone, she has a rejoinder ready. It can be wearing. Otherwise, it's a lively, intelligent and useful handbook for women who think they want it all. It's also a must-read for men at work and at home who are navigating the new world of women who want a top job, big salary, understanding boss, supportive partner, a couple of kids and Rolls-Royce childcare.

Like other leadership manuals, the book explores how power, networking, mentoring and negotiation work, and where women tend to get these things wrong. But it is also packed with research and data on gender issues, interlaced with stories of Sandberg's own mistakes, successes, self-recrimination and insecurities, which bring the book to life. She does not spare herself.

She might be rich, but all her angst is on display and she's not dispensing advice that is beyond the needs of most women. But it is true that people jump when she calls: Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington read her proofs. She has benefited from powerful sponsors and knows when to ask for assistance. As she acknowledges freely and at length, it took a small village to get this book together, which is in itself a message for women. Not all success need come by sticking your head down, running harder than any man and going for a promotion only when you know you can already do the job. Networking really helps.

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This is her manifesto for ambition, and women aren't supposed to be ambitious. They should be helpful, nurturing and pleasantly surprised when someone offers them a pay rise; otherwise, they risk breaching what Sandberg calls the likeability gap.

She devotes a chapter to success and likeability. Women may be acknowledged as excellent performers, but there is always a "but" - she is "too aggressive", "not a team player", "can't be trusted" or just plain "difficult".

These are things Sandberg says have been said about her and every senior woman she knows. The same goes for me and senior women I know. In Australia, "bitch" is so ubiquitous that even the prime minister, who might expect to be accorded the respect of office even as she clings to it, is not immune. The expression C-suite women, which indicates those in roles such as chief executive or chief operating officer, takes on an altogether more crude connotation here.

Of course, not all women have the desire, temperament or talent for leadership. Some get to the top and pull the ladder up behind them or, like many bosses, they bring damaging personality traits to the workplace. Ending the likeability gap will come, Sandberg believes, when powerful women are less of an exception. "If women held 50 per cent of the top jobs, it would just not be possible to dislike that many people."

And, she writes, human beings like to work with people who are like themselves. Hence, many powerful men promote other men they can relate to, talk sport with or play golf with. These men need to get with the programme. It's time to create a truly equal playing field, which means not one where women have to fit in, but where both sides accept that there needs to be another way to achieve equality.

Her important message is that women leaders must speak out about the challenges and be supportive of other women. It's also about encouraging more men to support women at home and at work.

I like the powerful message she delivers on how to navigate twists and turns on the jungle gym of work, including when you fall off it. Sandberg was out of a job when George W Bush took over the White House. She was prescient in her move to Silicon Valley, but soon realised transforming herself into a digital industry hotshot was going to take a while. In fact, it took a year. How she landed her next role, at Google, is fascinating and required reading for anyone pondering their next move.

Those detractors who believe Team Sandberg hasn't produced a feminist manifesto for today really ought to move on. Things have shifted quite a bit; now they just need to go all the way. Take it from one who recalls seeking work in a London newsroom and being told "we don't have lady journalists here because we don't have a ladies' lavatory".

Seriously.

Amanda Wilson was the first female editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.

LEAN IN By Sheryl Sandberg Random House $36.99

- Sunday Star Times

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