United States: Continuing The Conversation Around Working Women

Anne-Marie Slaughter's July 2012 Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" stirred up the coals in the ever-simmering firestorm regarding working women. Further fueled by the March 2013 publication of Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead", it seemed everyone had a word of criticism to offer.

The abundant criticism often missed the larger point - the conversation is important, and these two women should be applauded for spurring it. Lean In contains illustrative stories about what holds women back in career and life, and offers encouragement for overcoming them. Sandberg, a Harvard graduate, mom of two, and wife to David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, has had a storied career. The current COO of Facebook, she began her career as a research assistant to Lawrence Summers at the World Bank and later she served as a management consultant at McKinsey. She then became the chief of staff to Summers at the Treasury Department and spent six and a half years at Google, where she rose to the post of vice president of global online sales and operations. She also made it to the top of the notoriously male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, where the paucity of women among engineers, inventors and computer scientists is still clearly visible. There is no doubt that Lean In offers a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous that Sandberg affords (after all, Forbes lists her as the sixth most powerful woman). But, net worth and fame notwithstanding, there is valuable insight for women in the legal industry, where men still dominate at management and executive levels.

Take a chance

When Sandberg first received a job offer at Google in 2001, she questioned the title: Business Unit General Manager. There were no business units to manage and the company had less than 1000 employees at the time. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, "If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don't ask what seat. You just get on." Sandberg went on to become Google's vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations. Today, Google has over 30,000 employees. Similarly, lawyers, and non-lawyer professionals in the industry, are often advised to decline a job opportunity if it means a step-down in title. These people may miss an opportunity to catapult their career by joining a growth organization simply because of a few words on a business card.

Don't be afraid to negotiate

In 1970, American women made 59 cents for every dollar men earned. In 2010, women earned just 77 cents for every dollar men made. Sandberg's solution: negotiate like a man. When she was talking to Mark Zuckerberg about joining Facebook, Sandberg says she was inclined to accept the first offer he made because she really wanted to work for Facebook. Both her husband and brother-in-law encouraged her to make a counter-offer, saying, "Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do the same job?" Sandberg counter-offered. She told Zuckerberg that he was hiring her to run his deal teams and this would be the only time they would ever be on opposite sides of the table. She laid out what she wanted, and got a more lucrative offer the next day.

Stop trying to please everyone

Herein lies an important female personality issue in the workplace. Most of us place significant value on being liked. During her first performance review, Sandberg notes Zuckerberg told her, "Your biggest problem is you worry way too much about everyone liking you all the time." He said she would never make an impact unless she said something that at least one person disagreed with. "It's going to hold you back," he warned her. Employees who concentrate on results and impact are more valuable than those who focus on fitting in and pleasing everyone.

View child care costs as an investment

Sandberg notes that over the past decade, child care costs have risen twice as fast as the median income of families with children. The cost for two children (an infant and a four-year-old) to go to a day care center is greater than the annual median rent payment in every state in the country. Rigid work schedules, lack of paid family leave, and expensive or undependable child care derail women's best work efforts. Sandberg encourages women to compare child care costs to their future salary instead of their current one. Initial child care costs are an investment in a working mother's career.

Include men in the conversation

Sandberg believes that the single most important career decision a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner will be. A partner's lack of participation in child care and domestic tasks are significant factors in some women's decisions to leave the workforce or reduce their hours. Because there are still significantly more men at the top of every industry, the proverbial good-old-boy network continues to flourish. And because there are already a reduced number of women in leadership roles, it is not possible for junior women to get enough support unless senior men mentor them. The simple conclusion Sandberg strove for, clearly communicated and ultimately obtained, is that by turning the focus of the feminist movement toward personal choices, society has failed to encourage women to aspire to leadership. Thus the conversation needs to continue.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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