Throughout history, the quest to define what it means to be a woman has been no easy task. The guidelines of femininity have forever been as unpredictable and fleeting as a New England winter forecast. Not much has changed from this standpoint, a fact strongly evidenced by the recent hullabaloo over Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s upcoming book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg’s book illustrates the reasons why, after 50 years of progress in the workplace, men still hold the vast majority of upper level corporate positions. As one of the few who has made it to the top, she offers advice to women on how they can better climb the proverbial corporate ladder.
In her highly publicized 2012 TEDTalk (shown fully in the video below), Sandberg spoke to an audience about the same issues that she discusses in Lean In. Among many things, she relays to her audience the importance of career equality in light of a woman’s personal life.
“From the moment [a woman] starts thinking about having a child, she begins to stop raising her hand,” Sandberg says in her talk. “What happens when you start quietly leaning back? … Don’t leave before you leave. Stay in, and keep your foot on the gas pedal. And then make your decisions.”
If you are indeed a woman on the hunt for big-business success, there’s not much that can be argued against Sandberg’s philosophies. The proof does seem to be in the person; she is young, beautiful, smart – her personal description on her Twitter page even hints at a maintained down-to-earth quality despite her high-profile life. A wonderful role model for men and women alike, right?
Melissa Gira Grant wrote a recent op-ed in The Washington Post about Sandberg’s call, stating that “…this is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite… The ‘movement’ Sandberg seeks to lead with Lean In resembles a social movement only so far as it supports the growth of her brand as leader.” A hefty accusation for such a seemingly noble message.
Many others have similar hesitations; some even go so far as to suggest Sandberg is a hyper-idealistic missionary, blindly leading women towards a career of misery.
Bridget Williams, an SVP at Business Insider and self-proclaimed “flawless mother,” writes in her recent column – “Please Sheryl Sandberg, Don’t Speak On Behalf Of Working Women” – that she feels it’s not possible for Sandberg to be in touch with the everyday working woman’s struggle given Sandberg’s professional position.
At first glance, Sandberg and Williams don’t look so different. They are both 40-something women who hold top positions in the upper tiers of their respective companies. Williams has spent over 20 years in media, just like Sandberg – and she is the mother of two, as is Sandberg.
It is in this last detail that the two women differ.
Williams claims that, unlike Sandberg, she would never draw on her current professional status to give advice to young women entering the workplace.
She writes, “I have worked for progressive companies. But I look back to my 25-year-old self… to really understand the issues facing working mothers.”
Again, unlike Sandberg, Williams saw the pedal-to-the-metal approach as a fast track to disappointment. So she did what she had to do to be better; she quit.
How does she feel about it twenty years later? It’s definitely a mixed review – but she’s satisfied.
Williams writes, “Do I believe in my heart if I focused singularly on making it to the highest echelons of my career that by now I could have? Absolutely. But I love my job.”
So where do we find ourselves in the midst of all this? Really, nowhere new.
The multiple waves of feminism are historical proof that woman’s struggle for success can not be assuaged with a blanket solution. The multi-faceted nature of being a woman and being feminine makes it nearly impossible for an answer.
This month just so happens to be Women’s History Month, and is thus a good time to reflect upon women like Sheryl Sandberg, Bridget Williams, and their female predecessors. To learn more about these women and the things they’ve done, check out Women’s History For Beginners to get a comprehensive look at just how long and complex the road has been for women in our country, and throughout the world. The book covers a wide array of subjects ranging the role of black women in the emancipation process to what it has meant – and now means – to be a woman in the home.
Colleen McClintock is an intern at For Beginners® Books, and this piece originally appeared on the For Beginners blog.