Sunday, March 10, 2013


We often define heroism as embracing a cause larger than oneself, sensing what a group of people need and then, in an act of magnificent courage, speaking up for them against big power. These are stirring, emotional, game-changing moments, and often real people from real life are the inspiration for films that come later, such as “Norma Rae,” above.  

But what we’ve been seeing in the expanding debate on corporate women rising (or not) to the top is a far cry from any “Norma Rae” moment. It's more of a "me" moment, in which women who should know better become anecdotal. I’m saddened that so many highly educated and powerful women have decided to push aside the opportunity for a real conversation about work-life balance in order to perpetuate the story that corporations most want to propagate: They are saying, in effect, “There is no need for any change whatsoever in the corporate world. Corporations bear no responsibility for holding women back. The fault lies within women themselves.”   

This started a couple weeks ago when Marissa Mayer took some flak for ending telecommuting for her Yahoo workers. Much of the fallout was nasty and personal, and it provoked torrents of comments across the country.
Today, Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, asked rhetorically, in the Sunday New York Times Opinion section, if there is life after work. She recounts her time as Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the end of a meteoric career track that left her no time for her marriage, for friendships, or even to have children. She describes how work-a-holism crept into her life, and recounts the times when she might have said no at the office in order to have a fuller life outside. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” She ends on a sadder but wiser note. “Whatever valuable advice I have about managing a career, I am only now learning how to manage a life.” And that’s too bad, because her message is now being drowned out by Sheryl Sandberg.  

The COO of Facebook since 2008 got the cover of the NYT Book Review section for her new work, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, reviewed in the politest of tones by none other than Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the Women Can’t Have it All article in The Atlantic.

Sandberg is bullish on work. She chides younger women for not leaning in, as she puts it, or going all out. “Don’t leave before you leave,” she warns. Her book is a sort of EST training for women who want to reach the top, full of helpful tips and upbeat slogans such as “Done is better than perfect.”

The fact that this debate has lasted through so many news cycles suggests something’s afoot. Callan and Slaughter are of one mind on the question of work/life balance for mothers – it’s impossible at the top. As long as corporations expect 60-80 hour weeks, leading cannot be combined with motherhood. They’ve taken some heat for being willing to say it, but they seem to think the question ends with their stories.  

Slaughter takes the gentlest of swipes at Lean In, calling it “a young woman’s book,” noting Sandberg’s balancing act was about children closer in age to the terrible twos than the terrible teens. Possibly true, but it’s an unhelpful distraction of “my kids are harder than yours” in a much more important debate. Slaughter is on more solid ground when she points out that Sandberg and Mayer are reassuring corporate America with their “no problem” message. No need to change or accommodate. The opportunity is out there, young women just have to take it. Look at us!

Indeed. Not one of these women exhibits a shred of social activism. None is calling for shorter work weeks, more available and affordable day care or elder care, longer maternity leaves, and/or flexible hours that make sense for families. The brightest of the bright are unable to think beyond their own stories.

None of them have become the Norma Raes of the 21st century, and they seem highly unlikely to climb up on a CEO’s desk and hold up a sign in these modern sweatshops that says: “Work-Life Balance!”

Readers are fickle, and there is limited airtime and interest in rehashing all the problems of all the women who work, even though they are very real. Every one of the women above missed a golden opportunity to expand an extremely limited debate about her own experience to bring forward the needs of the wider group. The New York Times, too, needs to get over its star-struck fascination for women CEOs and talk to rest of us. Everyone might be surprised to find that women are not nearly as desperate to reach the corner office as they are to just get to the office.

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