Sheryl Sandberg and the Fight for Workplace Equality

February 25, 2013

Current Facebook COO and former Google executive Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most successful women in business in America. Recently, her profile has risen as she blitzes the media promoting her new book, Lean In. Sandberg would like to help other women excel as she has.

For that to happen, many things have to change. Among them: the innumerable barriers still facing female workers, including sexism both overt and covert, discrimination that often goes unpunished, and the stubborn expectation that women are less suited for hard work. Sandberg does not hesitate to criticize the continued existence of gender discrimination: last month, at the Davos World Economic Forum, she used a panel appearance to tell badly needed inconvenient truths:

Sandberg, who is publishing a book called Lean In on women in the workplace in March, singled out T-shirts sold in the US, with the boys' version emblazoned with the words "Smart Like Daddy", while the girls' version says "Pretty like Mommy".

"I would love to say that was 1951, but it was last year," she said. "As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked, and that starts with those T-shirts."

She blasted managers who unconsciously reflect stereotypes when they judge women's performance, saying: "She's great at her job but she's just not as well liked by her peers," or: "She's a bit aggressive."

"They say this with no understanding that this is the penalty women face because of gender stereotypes," she said.

As the Guardian article reported, while that panel featured five women out of six panelists, "[o]nly 17% of delegates at the high-powered event are women."

That Sandberg uses her success and her celebrity to fight entrenched sexism is admirable no matter how you look at it. But while Sandberg's arguments address the external forces arrayed against women, she also talks a great deal about what women should change about themselves---and it is this part of her approach which has attracted the most attention and controversy. This is not unfair: the title of her book, Lean In, is itself a call for women to be more assertive in the workplace.

In the shorthand of current popular conversation, Sandberg says women can "have it all"---families plus successful careers; they just need to work hard, educate themselves on how to overcome discrimination, and get their "significant other to pull his or her own weight with kids and at home." The latter is a Forbes blog post's characterization of her argument; the same post articulates a common criticism of Sandberg:

The problem with this kind of harder-better-faster-stronger advice is that it's simply not applicable to the 99% of women in the workforce. If your salary is equal than or lesser to the cost of childcare--which for many new mothers is the case--it takes an often insurmountable amount of self-motivation to get yourself out the door and into the office every day. As the NY Times' Jodi Cantor put it this summer, Sandberg's advice is for "a woman has a sterling résumé, a supportive husband who speaks fluent car pool and a nurturing boss." Oh... and one "who just happens to be one of the most powerful women in the world."

For those of us without the expendable income and support system of the leading female executive at one of America's most-talked about companies, Sandberg's advice reads more like finger-wagging. Want to climb the ladder? It's easy! Be better. Want more work-life balance? It's simple! Be richer.

On Thursday, the Times ran a very useful piece summarizing the debate. They quote another female commentator who is disappointed by the Facebook executive's new book:
Ms. Sandberg "does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other women for not trying hard enough," wrote Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a consultant who works with companies to improve their gender balance [....] "Every resistant man on the planet will be able to quote her" saying that women simply must become more ambitious, Ms. Cox continued.
The argument surrounding Lean In is a productive and necessary one. The abovementioned "have it all" shorthand refers to a widely discussed 2012 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly, in which Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that Sandberg-style feminism was "holding women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success." The Times captures the utility of this back-and-forth
The Slaughter-Sandberg match may represent what some may see as a welcome new phase in the debate over work and motherhood. The "mommy wars," with working and stay-at-home mothers sniping at one another's choices, may have finally run their course. Instead, Ms. Sandberg, Ms. Slaughter and many others are arguing about the best strategy for fulfilling feminism's promise.
As this argument unfolds in coffee shops and classrooms across the country, the battle for equality continues in the workplace itself. Unfortunately, many women are unable to debate their bosses into equitable treatment---and are forced to litigate. The Harman Firm fights for fair treatment and compensation for these women.

Our ongoing representation of Rachel Walsh is just one example: the Barclays AVP was fired when her baby was diagnosed with cancer. Walsh was essentially believed to be too fragile to handle both her child's care and her work. It tests the imagination to conceive of a man being treated this way, and yet it happens to women all the time.

If you have any questions about gender discrimination or workplace regulations in general, please contact The Harman Firm today.