Sunday, January 16, 2011

A response to Sheryl Sandberg's TED talk: why women should stop worrying and be the leaders they already are

Several of my friends have now posted this TED video by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, talking about how more women can become leaders in their careers.  At this stage in my life, I've been giving a lot of thought to the topic of women and careers.  So I feel compelled to comment on what I see as misguided advice that successful career women often give their younger counterparts.

I won't spend much time nitpicking at Sandberg's delivery, but I can't help but groan at her business-jargon-infested style, which reminds me of a verbal version of powerpoint.  I think her main goal is to encourage women to be strong and believe in themselves, which I'm completely in favor of.  And she does give many useful pieces of specific advice.  But her broader message is garbled and ambiguous, and troublingly values-free.

She recounts a story of her brother boastfully predicting that he would ace an exam despite shirking in the class, while she and a female friend nervously fretted in self-doubt.  Her lesson from this story is that women need to correct our under-confidence problem.  But implicitly, she's also saying that we live in a world of over-confident men, and in order to succeed in that world we have to be more like them. 

I don't like this implication.  I value the fact that I don't think I'm right all the time, and don't boast about being the best at everything.  I do ruefully acknowledge that overconfidence is often rewarded as much as substance.  But I don't have any desire to be like her brother in the story, even if it would help me get ahead. 

Sandberg's most compelling story involves giving her talk about women and leadership at Facebook.  After her talk, she said she would take two more questions before concluding.  While all the women put their hands down after she answered the last two questions, she continued taking questions from the men who kept their hands up.  Her lesson for women is to "keep your hands up," and she views the men's behavior as "reaching for opportunity."  I view it as being obnoxious, and I think Sandberg’s perspective disempowers the women who respected her own stated wishes by viewing them as timid and weak. 

More emphatically than in the first story, Sandberg encourages women to elbow our way in, demand higher pay, and become more like men in order to beat them in the career rat race.  I've heard the type of advice Sandberg gives all too often: "be selfish," "ask for more," "resist your maternal instinct."  But I think what's really holding women back is not that we're not aggressive enough, or that we don't negotiate for higher pay.  It's that we frame ourselves into a position of weakness instead of owning up to who we are and the choices we make. 

The pay gap is a prime example of how a statistical fact can be viewed to either empower or disempower women.  Under one view, women who are paid less are inferior and less worthy, because pay is the measure of one's worth in society.  But Dutch women view it a different way.   Instead of wasting our time in a pissing contest over who gets a higher bonus, women are focusing on whether our jobs lend meaning and fulfillment to our lives, and enable us to connect with and help others.  Under this view, women who refuse to compromise their values to get higher pay are asserting their identities, not cowering in self-doubt.

If selfishness and arrogance are the main reasons for the male-female pay gap, as Sandberg implicitly suggests, we should start talking about another lurking inequality: the asshole pay gap.  Perhaps the male-female pay gap has nothing to do with being a woman per se.  Rather, climbing to the very top of any profession might simply require traits that are primarily expressed in a small subset of men: raging assholes.  The studies Sandberg cites are consistent with this conclusion.  Men tend to over-estimate their ability, they tend to negotiate harder for higher pay, and they tend to bulldoze social norms in order to grasp for their own gain.  I haven't seen an econometric test of the asshole pay gap hypothesis, but if it were true we'd find that it's not just women who receive lower pay and are shut out of the top jobs, but a large subset of men as well.  If men get paid more by being assholes, they can keep their pay gap, and I'll keep my dignity.

So if we stop looking to men as our role models for leadership, who can we look to?  I think that feminist-y, career-oriented women like me could take a cue from conservative women like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell.  Not ideologically, but in the way they present themselves and the choices they've made.  Politics aside, I find it incredibly refreshing to see these female leaders presenting public images that fully embrace their femininity and motherhood/singlehood instead of wringing their hands at all of the compromises they've made, talking about how hard it is to juggle all of their goals and responsibilities, and feeling guilty about their choices (notice how the words we use make us appear and feel weak?).

To take a broader view on women and careers, I’ll point to the growing evidence that women are better adapted to the demands of the modern workplace (see this much-discussed article entitled The End of Men, and this study of labor market trends by MIT economist David Autor).  Women are better at staying in school, have higher social intelligence, and are better at communication, and part of these valuable skills may be attributable to the very traits that Sandberg portrays as weaknesses that women should overcome.  In light of the unmistakable trends toward female economic domination, advice that women should adopt the behavioral tactics of men seems like a relic from an earlier feminist era.  Leaders like Sandberg would do better to think more about how they can reward women for the talents they possess, rather than encouraging them to conform to a declining and mal-adaptive male archetype.



Tat said...

Bravo! Excellent article. A delight to read. Thank you :)

rajeswari gorana said...

well said!

Rahul said...

Everyone here is complaining about facebook. Go out and get real friends and all that. Yes, that is a good thing. However, some of us, like my Marine Corps family, use facebook to keep in touch. I can post pictures of our kids and the whole family can see them, easier than email or mail. I also can let them all know how we are doing, things that happen day to day and so forth. I can do it in 5 seconds and dont have to spend hours on the phone talking to each of them. And btw, its called privacy settings. No one can search for me, find me, see me, unless I want them to. Gee, that was easy!