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From the mommy wars: Well-meaning condescension

  • FILE - This Jan. 15, 2013 file photo shows Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Sandberg's book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" goes on sale Monday, March 11, 2013 amid criticism that she's too successful and rich to lead a movement. But she says her focus remains on spurring action and progress among women. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, file)

To get somewhere in this circular debate over women and work, we need to get three women in the same room: Anne-Marie Slaughter, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg.

Slaughter quit her high-ranking job at the State Department to return to academia at Princeton University and wrote a long magazine article about how women can't have it all. Mayer is the new mother and chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc. who dissed maternity leave as if it were for sissies and called all employees back to the office or else.

And then there is Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, whose new book tells women how to be as successful as she is — or, alternatively, why they're jerks for not being as successful as she is. The takeaway from "Lean In," which is already a best-seller, is that you can succeed if you would just stop undermining yourself, assume a better posture, raise your hand and speak up.

If it were that easy, there would be no market for Sandberg's book 50 years after Betty Friedan laid down the first marker. Now there is a heavy shelf of advice tomes and dispatches from the mommy wars, yet a few truths remain self-evident: Women have babies, usually during their peak career-climbing years. There are only 24 hours in a day, a fact no legislation can change (although thanks for the Family and Medical Leave Act). And though men become fathers, they don't feel — operative word feel — the same pull to be at home with their children that the women who bear them do.

Not that Sandberg's from-on-high perspective isn't interesting. Who could quibble with her admonition to shed the self-doubt that holds so many women back? As she notes, women in her class at Harvard are much less accomplished than the men; only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. She gives us a glimpse into the boardroom, and it turns out that when the door closes, they are saying exactly what you might expect: They find assertive women bossy and assertive men inspiring, and see female likability as inversely proportional to female success.

"Don't leave before you leave" is a Sandberg aphorism that makes sense. It means, don't hold back trying to make partner or become regional sales manager because someday you might get pregnant. Your employer already believes men are much less likely to bail than you are. Don't play along.

Much of the criticism of Sandberg's book is that she writes as if her advice is useful to all women when it is helpful mostly to the privileged. When Sandberg was on a lower rung, she did what so many mothers do: Snuck out at 5:30 p.m. to have dinner with her children.

She sneaks no more; since her well-paid days at Google, dinner has been ready when she gets home. It's just a financial fact of life that inside the household of a woman at the top is an army of nannies. This doesn't make Sandberg a bad mother but an efficient one.

Sandberg has something to say in this short book and in her many interviews, but her elevated position makes her a target. It isn't her fault she's beautiful and rich. Still, she could have left out how she deals with problems that beset us all.

While many a mother has had to make an unscheduled pickup when the school nurse calls to say she has found lice, most of us have to get there on our own and aren't picking out the nits later on the corporate jet.


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