Who’s right? Sandberg to put herself at the center of the conversation, or Mayer to avoid it?
Quite frankly, they both are in the right. And the sooner we stop calling Sandberg too rich to preach about how women should get ahead, and stop chiding Mayer for doing things that don’t help the broader cause of women in the workplace, the better. The more we hang all our crusaders or, conversely, expect all our pioneers to be poster girls, the less other women will seek to fill either role.
Yes, Sandberg may not be the perfect spokeswoman for a revolution in the workplace. Between the private jets, the millions in Facebook stock and all her powerful friends, this celebrity COO is not representative of most working women. But here’s the thing: Her argument carries so much weight partially because of the rarity of what she’s already achieved. And at least she’s talking about it, bringing attention to the abysmal number of women at the top of Corporate America and urging professional women to leverage what’s within their control. Some may begrudge her riches or her relationships, but she’s using her celebrity status to shine a light on an issue that needs it.
So doesn’t that mean Mayer should too? Not necessarily. You may disagree with her decision to end telecommuting arrangements at Yahoo (as I have), or balk at her comment that feminism is a “negative word” (as I do). But if Mayer doesn’t want to carry the banner for young working mothers, she doesn’t have to. In changing Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, she’s apparently doing what she thinks is best for the company’s success — even if that’s debatable. After all, no one will remember how she helped pave the way for women of childbearing age to be chief executives if she fails at the job herself.
Moreover, expecting every high-ranking executive woman to become a public spokesperson for the glass ceiling debate not only places unfair pressure on them, but on the women in line behind them. Sure, it might be great if more spoke up. But we don’t expect men who hold major CEO jobs to become role models for social issues at the same time they try to manage such a demanding job. If we want every young woman who reaches the top of the corporate suite to write books and grace magazine covers as a champion of feminism, even fewer women will “lean in” and go after those jobs.