My Relationship with Sheryl
It had been a long while since I have been roiled by Sheryl Sandberg. I think many highly educated, highly resourced, yet family-focused women like me are, but in my case, the early similarities exacerbate the angst. You see, Sheryl and I are both 52-years-old. She started her career at McKinsey, and I started at BCG. We both attended HBS and graduated in 1995. And that’s where our parallel paths end. She went on to work for former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, co-lead Facebook as COO and publish a best-selling book on women in the workforce. I, on the other hand, have spent most of my career years prioritizing family above all else and peppering that focus with non-profit volunteering, a bit of university-level teaching and equity-based part-time consulting work with female entrepreneurs. Whenever Sheryl hits the papers, as she did last week owing to her decision to retire from Facebook, I start down the slippery slope of doubting my self-worth.
I reluctantly read Sheryl’s Lean In when it was published in 2013. It’s a manifesto of sorts that proclaimed career women should stand up for themselves in the face of male-dominated work cultures. And to make myself feel better, I looked for any way to criticize the book. I told Jim how angry I was that she didn’t acknowledge the delicate balance many women walk between career and family. I expounded that she probably didn’t she think about those tradeoffs since she probably had more than one nanny. He agreed (good move on his part), noting he was struck by the way she ignored compromises often required by dual-career couples: what if one of them is promoted and has to move, he asked? Still, Jim also said it had made him realize how, as a leader, he needed to proactively be more inclusive of women to demonstrate the right behaviors to others. Even I could agree that was a positive outcome.
Today, I can celebrate Sheryl for pushing women to stand up for themselves. She is right that women can be marginalized in many workplace settings and that our natural tendency is to hold back for fear of being labeled as too aggressive. That said, I still wish she had considered celebrating leaning in on any front. Few women have the resources she has had to support her career, and even those that do (like me) should be celebrated for their choice of whatever balance of life makes the most sense for them. Imagine how someone of her stature could have advanced the way women are valued for any and all of their contributions, whether or not they have anything to do with business.
On a recent trip, I met a divorced women who started a successful private equity firm and raised two daughters at the same time. We were to spend five days together hiking as part of a larger group, and all I could think about after we met was how I would now spend five days questioning my self-worth and asking myself why I never figured out how to balance family and career the way she had clearly done. I figured she would dismiss me as someone unworthy of her time. Surprisingly, she dispelled that notion pretty quickly – as we walked together a day or so into the trip, she showed clear respect for my background, my activities, and my chosen path. On the last night of the trip, I confessed how, upon our first meeting, I worried I would spend the week in self-doubt. Her response was so empowering: you have achieved on your own terms, she said, and I would give anything to have what you and Jim have together. How refreshing to see a powerful career woman celebrate a balance that differs from our society’s traditional view of success, a balance that is not centered around career.
Sheryl leaned into career. I leaned into family. I’m guessing I will never stop feeling some angst about what I might have achieved professionally if I had chosen a different balance, but I will also work to keep reminding myself that women should be celebrated for whatever choices they make, as long as they “lean in” to them. Me included.