In her new book, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg writes about how women can increase their chances of making it to the top and find balance in a world where true gender equality remains elusive in the workplace.
At Harvard Business School, 2013 marks the 50-year anniversary of the admittance of women to the school’s full-time MBA program.
The arrival of this kind of milestone in recognition of how far women have come is especially interesting when you think of it in relation to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial article that ran in The Atlantic and the conversation it launched about what women can and should strive to achieve. In the July 2012 article, Slaughter argues that — unless you’re a “superwoman,” an exception — our society is not currently structured in a way that allows women to “have it all.”
But one aspect of the debate that has gotten lost in the allure of messages propagated by successful women such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is whether or not these superwomen are really the best role models for the majority of women.
Why wouldn’t they be? Because they’re not relatable.
In her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sandberg writes about how women can increase their chances of making it to the top and find balance in a world where true gender equality remains elusive in the workplace.
For some, Sandberg’s message is encouraging, taking a firm stance in a world where the “either/or” dichotomy seems to rule the day.
“In a women-in-the-workplace discussion consisting mostly of ‘either/ors,’ her argument in the upcoming book Lean In injects the word ‘and’ into the conversation in a way that urges women to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work,” writes Gayle Tzemach Lemmon — contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program — in The Atlantic.
While a combination of hard work, intelligence and luck certainly enables some women to resonate with Sandberg’s “how to” advice, the reality is that for many college women like myself, the world of one of the most successful CEOs in America seems particularly far off at this stage in our lives.
If women like Sandberg are not representative of the majority of women in the workforce, then her message, while inspiring, is not instructive. Forbes writer Meghan Casserly provides commentary that is rich with the kind of biting reality check that flies in the face of Sandberg’s call to action.
“For many women, taking workplace advice from Sheryl Sandberg, who earned a salary of nearly $30 million in 2011, is a little like taking ‘basic’ fashion advice from actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whose website GOOP tells me a Stella McCartney tank dress, at $471, is a budget-conscious pick,” Casserly writes.
This brings us back to the question that lies at the heart of the matter: How can we choose female role models who are relatable while still aspiring to the success of women like Sandberg?
What we need is a 21st-century Rosie the Riveter — without the war. Rosie was iconic for sounding a call to action to which women felt they could relate, allowing them to take meaningful steps toward achieving progress together.
By propagating the “superwoman ideal,” we inspire, surely, but we also mislead. The challenges that the majority of women face in finding work/life balance cannot be seen plainly in books like Lean In, which will most likely be more useful as a personal memoir than as a trove of relatable advice.
And so, in order to have it all, we must first complement our understanding of what “all” is by looking to role models who not only inspire us, but who are also women to whom we can relate. The mom, the professor, the female chair of the department — she is the one whose book I’d love to read.
Ultimately, the insights we gain from the successful women around us should not be fodder for comparison, but rather fuel for the invention of our own paths to success.
The first step is finding Rosie in the inspiring, relatable women around us.
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