The Sheryl Sandberg Debate: Outrage, Inspiration – But How About Some Child Care?

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I envy (and support) the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's insistence on going home to her young kids at 5:30 on many days — but it’s just not feasible for most of us

A debate continues to rage among women alternately inspired or incensed by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who in a new book is exhorts women to “lean in” to leadership jobs.

Mostly incensed.

The Maureen Dowds of the world weighed in with a vengeance two weeks ago, pillorying Sandberg for having “co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.”

The clamor has not gotten any better since then, with others arguing that Sandberg speaks from a place of privilege that is out of touch with the real lives of working women.

On Sunday night, a defensive Sandberg went on "60 Minutes" to explain herself, telling Norah O'Donnell: “I am saying we need to help women own the power they have — learn how to negotiate for raises and get the pay they deserve.” She added: “I’m not trying to say that everything I can do everyone can do.”

Also read: The Surge of Women at Sundance – And What it Means For Filmmaking

But the press again this weekend was full of women’s voices reacting negatively to Sandberg’s argument that women need to “lean in” by asserting themselves more in the workplace, by having the confidence to sit at the conference table with the big boys and not duck promotions if they’re thinking of having children.

Their consensus seems to be: Are you serious?

The outrage is not from middle managers. It's from women working at the top end of the pyramid.

In the Wall Street Journal, entrepreneur Jody Miller retorted that it’s not that women aren’t showing ambition; it’s corporate culture that has not adapted to the needs of women leaders:

“’Leaning in’ may help the relative handful of talented women who can live with the way that top jobs are structured today — and if that's their choice, more power to them,” Miller wrote. “But only a small percentage of women will choose this route. Until the rest of us get serious about altering the way work gets done in American corporations, we're destined to howl at the moon over the injustice of it all while changing almost nothing.”

Erin Callan, the former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, claims her zero-sum devotion to her job ended in humiliation. In the New York Times’ Sunday Review section, Callan noted that after she dropped out of the corporate life as Lehman Brothers faced bankruptcy, she realized she had nothing left.

“I thought my singular focus on my career was the most powerful ingredient in my success,” she writes. “But I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme. Besides, there were diminishing returns to that kind of labor.

Also read: Sexist Hollywood?: Women Still Struggle to Find Film Jobs, Study Finds

“Inevitably, when I left my job, it devastated me,” she writes. “I couldn’t just rally and move on. I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did. What I did was who I was.”

Even Anne-Marie Slaughter, a policy analyst and Princeton professor who has fueled the debate with a piece in the Atlantic about why women "can't have it all," praised Sandberg for most of a New York Times book review on Sunday but gently circles back to a critical conclusion:

“Sandberg’s approach, as important as it is, is at best half a loaf,” she wrote. “(And) it is hard not to notice that her narrative is what corporate America wants to hear. For both the women who have made it and the men who work with them, it is cheaper and more comfortable to believe that what they need to do is simply urge younger women to be more like them, to think differently and negotiate more effectively, rather than make major changes in the way their companies work.”

This is unfortunate, Slaughter said. “Sandberg seems ideally placed to ask the question that all too often gets lost amid the welter of talk. … When it comes to ensuring that caregivers still have paths to the corner office, how can business lean in?”

And young career women reading the arguments seem to find it all confusing. “The bashing is unsurprising,” wrote Colleen Leahy on Fortune.com, “as it's become something of a trend to tear apart powerful corporate females in an attempt to promote the women's movement. (See guys, we are confusing!)”

Well, no, not really. The bashing has come because when you boil down Sandberg’s argument it really sounds like: “Try harder.” “Be tougher.” “Don’t give up.” And to a generation of women who have been burning the candle at both ends to achieve the Holy Grail of professional and personal fulfillment, that feels insulting.

Every working woman I have known for the past 20 years is justifiably exhausted.

Here’s what I like about Sandberg: She’s started a vital conversation. Here’s what I don’t like. I’m with "Are you serious?"

There was nothing more physically depleting to me than my 30s, trying to “lean in” to a demanding, 24/7 job as a reporter for national newspapers, while raising three young children. At the same time, the effort was incredibly nourishing, laying the groundwork for the career I have today and the family that surrounds me.

But still: At one point I found myself in a doctor’s office dealing with some physical symptom of the unrelenting pace. He asked whether I could give up part of my life to alleviate the evident stress. “Which one of my kids do you suggest I give back?” I retorted, probably not politely enough.  

Then as now, I marvel at the fact that there is no national conversation at all. Anywhere. At any time. About the single issue that could alleviate the burden on women: Child care. (I’d like to add a few adjectives there: affordable, accessible, reliable, educational, responsive child care.) For women trying to build their careers through their child-bearing years, and for the dads doing so as well, the lack of this resource in our society as a community value is the elephant in the room.

Once upon a time I believed that Hillary Clinton would raise the issue during her husband’s presidency. But over time I learned that the notion of a public or private child care system — which like public health care is a given in European countries — is an subject non grata in this country.

For me, it’s certainly been no easier launching and running a start-up company now that my kids are older. And I do envy (and support) Sandberg’s insistence on going home to her young kids at 5:30 on many days. It’s just not feasible for most of us.

As for child care, or the absence thereof, not one of the articles I read in reaction to Sandberg even brought it up. Instead, Sandberg recommends “lean-in” groups. To which I'd say: How about just a really good babysitting service?