Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's "Too Few Women"

I've been wanting to write about this for weeks now, but just haven't had the time to pay it proper attention. A friend and commenter first brought it to my attention by way of a Corporette post titled "Planning for Babies" which referenced a talk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (and former VP at Google, former Chief of Staff for the U.S. Dept. of Treasury, and double graduate of Harvard, first with a B.A. and "top graduating student" prize in Economics, and later with an MBA with highest honors; she's accomplished, is what I'm saying). I thought the post was interesting and bookmarked it for another time. Then, last week, I attended a Women's Initiative lunch at my firm and actually saw the video the Corporette post had been talking about.

It is not revolutionary, and it does not present an actual solution for why there are too few women leaders in business or politics, nor could it possibly do so. But it spoke to me like nothing else on this topic ever has and that I've been thinking about it ever since I watched it. I came home that day, blog posts firing away in my head, quoted it nearly verbatim to JP with increasing speed and volume, ate dinner, put my kids to bed, and then settled in to work on a motion at my kitchen table until midnight. All those beautiful posts never got written, and now you're going to have to settle for this far less eloquent version. I hate it when real work interferes with my plans to blog about working.

I should make clear at the start that I didn't nod my head to everything Ms. Sandberg said, and as always, her advice and talking points have to be tailored to each individual, their goals, and their situation, but I still think everyone should watch her talk. I felt like it was a small piece of the overall puzzle, framed in a way that really resonated with me. It's not about what businesses should do to retain women (though that's important), it's about what we as individuals can do to help the women, including ourselves, who want to stay in the workforce to actually stay there. Because quite simply nothing is going to change until more of us are in positions to make change happen. The video is 14 minutes long, but it's worth the time, and you should watch it.


I'm going to take it point by point.

(1.) Sit at the table. This probably resonated the least with me. Not because I don't think it's important, but because of either my parents, an innate confidence, or both, I grew up assuming I had both a top grade and a deserved spot at any table. (At least up until law school- one of the reasons 1L year beat the formerly self-assured crap out of me.) But what did hit me was the way men and women who are similarly successful by doing similar things are viewed so differently by others. A man is seen as successful and an all around great guy; the woman is seen as successful but a grasper, someone who's probably using people to get ahead. This makes me crazy and so often it's women who are perpetuating the problem.

Also the idea that women put their hands down hit home. I don't remember being this way before law school, but since 1L year I've pretty much stopped raising my hand with either questions or answers. With the questions, I always assume I've missed something and everyone else knows the answer, even though most of the time people ask questions I know have been answered and/or were my exact question. With the answers, I've developed a paralyzing fear of being publicly wrong. But I'm working on it. In my current phase of life, this translates most often to conference calls where people, usually partners, are asking for suggestions or thoughts and I have one I don't reveal until the call is over. I'll mention it to the senior associate whose office I'm in and she almost always exclaims, "Why didn't you speak up?!" I have a new goal to speak on every conference call and to forgive myself if I'm wrong. I know I don't think about the fact someone said something incorrect for more than two minutes after it happened, why would I presume that people would focus on my statements for any longer?

2. Make your partner a real partner. Oh yes. This is a big one. If someone asked me to list the three things that help me to be such a happy working mom it would be (1) my spouse, (2) a daycare that I love and trust, and (3) my super short commute. (Number four would be my actual job.) JP is my partner. We share equal responsibility for parenting, finances, chores, etc. Not equal work, per se, but an equal feeling of responsibility to our children and our home, and the work gets divided naturally according to each person's time and ability. Right now this means that JP does way more of the house and kid duties. When I was in law school I did more. It balances out. But even with the differing abilities, there is a deep respect and care for each other- for each other's rest, sanity, and preferences about having the kitchen counters bare and clean at the end of the day (okay, that's just my preference) that underlies it all. And that love and respect translates to doing things for the other that makes them happy (like the clean counter thing). It's also about expectations. I demand a lot from myself with regard to my role as JP's wife and Landon and Claire's mom, and I expect the same from him. I loved her stat that marriages that share equal responsibility have half the divorce rate and a lot more sex. I don't know about the former, but the latter seems pretty accurate.

I also liked her point that men's contribution to childcare need to be valued. I know women always complain that a dad is a hero at work because he leaves to make it to his kid's soccer game, but the women is looked down on or penalized for it. And this is unfair and too frequently true, but that isn't any reason to perpetuate it by knocking men's contribution to their families. I remember when I was studying for the Bar and JP was home all day, every day with Landon, and I mentioned to a colleague that I felt bad about that. She laughed and said something like, "please, you're never going to get me to feel bad for a dad." And yet I know she would have had sympathy for a wife in the exact same situation with a husband studying all day for the Bar. A little thing, but that conversation has always stood out in my mind. Taking care of children, taking care of a home- these are incredibly important things, and they should be valued, viable options for both sexes by both sexes.

3. Don't leave before you leave. This was by FAR the biggest point for me. Basically, Sheryl makes the point that women often take steps to make it easier for them to stay in the workforce after they have kids (usually many years before they even have kids), which actually end up paving the way for them to leave their jobs when they have children. So instead of looking for the promotion or raising your hand for the challenging new project, you start leaning back, working down to a less-demanding role that should be easier to balance after you've had a baby. But, since it's hard to leave a baby to go work, and it's even harder to put forth the effort to balance the two, if you don't have a job you really enjoy and find challenging, there's a much greater chance that you'll end up quitting and staying home. Which is fine for those women for whom staying home was always the goal. But for those who do want to keep their careers- and not just keep, but thrive in, excel at, and otherwise demand satisfaction from that other area of their life, then maybe if you'd pursued those challenging paths five years ago, you'd be at a place in your career post-baby, that makes you want to make it work. Because without really wanting to do it, it's way to easy to decide that you can't.

I am 100% guilty of this- and I know from talking to my law school friends, none of whom have children yet, that many of them are guilty of it too. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard about a new case and hesitated too long before asking to be staffed on it because I'm afraid of the question marks and possible time demands. This is true even when I don't have a full plate and need work, so I end up getting put on something- a something that is almost always less enjoyable or challenging. This is also why I don't volunteer for committees and shy away from clubs, bar association events, and pretty much anything having to do with business development. At nearly every opportunity, I pause, spend three days weighing whether or not I can do it, whether or not it will mess with my fiercely guarded schedule, and it expires. Later, when I see the person who seized the opportunity, I realize that it wouldn't have affected me or my time nearly so much as I let myself fear.

It is undoubtedly important to set boundaries and protect your family time, but I'm doing it at the expense of letting great opportunities pass me by -- opportunities that probably wouldn't have messed up my schedule at all. And what little amount they might have, could have lead to something even better, and perhaps more flexible down the line. If there is anything I've seen true over and over again at The Firm, it's that the women with power are the ones with clients, expertise, and/or some kind of special experience that makes them valuable. They are the ones who can institute flex-time arrangements that actually work and make partner on a part-time schedule, and it's because they jumped up, seized an opportunity, and are now reaping the benefits of it.

This probably isn't revolutionary to anyone else, but I heard this last 2 minutes of Sheryl Sandberg's talk and felt like someone had hit me. It's not the staying in the workforce that is my challenge- as I've said, I like working and have no desire to ever stay home. My struggle is putting myself out there and making the most of this time that I do spend away from my kids. I think only by doing that can I get in a position to have as many options as possible as they get older and I want more flexibility to be with them. I've seen over and over that when I do take on a big case, I can make it work, that by doing a good job and working hard, my family time is accommodated. I'm going to try to stop allowing my own fears or the opinions of others (i.e., "when does she see her kids?" I think women judge each other far harsher than we judge men or than men judge us) stop me from honestly evaluating the opportunities in front of me.

There were lots of other thoughts I had, but this is already too long and I'm trying to keep it somewhat organized. I think the working world would be better if more women were in it. I love the female partners and associates I work with and I think we bring an additional perspective and set of strengths to our client's problems. I'm sad when one leaves the firm after having children- not because I think she shouldn't stay home if she wants to, but because the ones I've spoken with usually don't. They want their careers, they just can't figure out a way to make it work and inevitably they're the ones to step back. That, I think, is a problem. I don't have answers, no one does, but I thought this talk presented a few points worth thinking about.


  1. BeerBrewinMama2/22/11, 12:27 PM

    THANK YOU!! Thank you for posting this video and convincing me to watch it. I really really needed the positive reinforcement. I have 1 month left of maternity leave and now I am more excited then ever to go back to the job I love. I have some interviews for upcoming promotion opportunities (also read more flexible jobs!) and this gives me more confindence to give my all.

  2. I liked the talk but thought it was mostly things I had heard before -- except, like you, I thought the last "don't leave before you leave" point was valuable. And, also like you, I feel I've already done this to some extent. But unlike you, I don't regret it that much. I feel stretched to the limit already. Still, I recognize that not seizing professional opportunities is a problem and that I should be more willing to do it. Just... not right now.

  3. I think it must have been the phrasing - some subtle tweak that made a point I'm sure I've heard before suddenly hit home. It's a little different for us, I think, because we came into our current jobs already with a child, and so I started out hyper vigilant and wary of anything that might demand even a minute extra of my time (with good reason, and that vigilance has paid off in a lot of ways). But, I think that I have taken it too far- I'm leaving before I leave in a job I actually have no plans to leave. I am stopping that right now. There will still be evaluations of whether an opportunity is worth my time, because you have to do that- kids or now, but I'm going to at least try to argue a little harder for the "take it" column.

    And actually CM, you're someone I think of who does seize things! Your involvement with the community, library, etc. is way more than I do, so you're one of my inspirations :)

  4. I read this now (and will watch it a little later) and it hits home for me, too, and here's why - I';ve been nominated for senior board of my journal, a huge honor, and I've been considering turning down the nomination because I'm afraid it will be too hard to accomplish and have the kids at the same time. No one else mentioned my children being a hindrance - I did. I actually said to the Editor in Chief - Jack had scarlet fever this week, and he's going to have it again, and that could hurt my ability to make the journal a high priority under the deadline pressures when we go to press.
    I've felt guilty about saying that ever since. What will I do when I'm a lawyer and Jack gets sick? What do I expect then? What will my husband do with his job?
    I'm also too busy to do this justice, but I'm going to write my own post about it, because you're right. It's important not to be marginalized, and also not to marginalize yourself. Men have had children and worked for years. We can, too.

  5. I am 100% guilty of holding back too. In fact, I didn't bother to turn in the write-on packet for Law Review - even though I probably would have graded on - because I was worried that Law Review would take too much time (I was pregnant with my first child). I also do the same thing as you on calls - I almost never speak up unless directly asked to do so because I am worried that I have nothing valuable to contribute. I have been getting more involved in ABA stuff, but I don't do enough business development.

    Oddly enough, a female colleague and I had a conversation about men's assertiveness compared to women. We found out that a recent hire (male) got a signing bonus when he lateraled to my firm. It did not even occur to me or my friend (female) to ask for a signing bonus when we lateraled. My female colleague does not have kids, but we attributed our failure to ask for the bonus to the fact that we are women. We just commented that men really do have a higher sense of what they are worth and are more assertive about negotiating salary.

    I don't know where these gender differences come from. I have girls and both are fairly assertive (especially my oldest). I wonder, though, when we learn so much self-doubt. I am probably more assertive than the average woman, but compared to men, I still hang back. I have a brother and he is SO confident it actually annoys me at times. We have the same parents, went to the same schools until college. Where did I learn that I should defer to others whereas my brother is convinced that he knows everything?

  6. a twist on this argument, a way to make it a critique of *men*, is basically, that the reason there are only white men partners is that the job fundamentally sucks, so basically, they're the only ones without sufficient other sources of joy to make the personal sacrifices required of partnership. i am pretty confident that I *could* make partner if wanted to. but i just don't know if i want it. ms. sandburg presumes we do and should, but honestly, a lifetime of 2300+ billables, sounds less enjoyable to me than one of time with my kids and for myself, etc.

  7. Anon, I think that's true to some extent, paticularly in that women have different goals than men (often, I think, the same goals men might have if they actually thought about it) and we're very good at finding different ways to get there. But I don't think her talk has to be interpreted as pushing women towards all traditionally male-defined goals, even if she starts out framing it that way. I see it as encouraging women to for the top from the beginning so that you have every option available to you when you do have kids and want to step back. I know the women at my firm who have successful part-time arranagements are usually those with niche practices and the power to set their own schedule- power they wouldn't have if they hadn't seized certain opportunities early on. It seems to apply outside the firm as well- those with the most interesting lateral opportunites were those who were superstars here before they left.

    Not that this is universally true for to everyone, but I do think that much of what she says can apply even if, as you say, you don't want what the traditional "pinnacle of success" might be in our line of work.

  8. same anon here - i think you're right that women think about it more. and the idea of having "options" (i.e. the ability not to work) is, I think, something that *does* cause women's careers to slow down. men traditionally view work as a "have to", to be the breadwinner. where the women i know are, like you, the breadwinners, their careers do better. i think looking at work as a have to, means that you *do* take on those opportunities because, well, if you have to do it, you might as well get glory for it!

  9. I didn't watch the video - I'll have to come back and watch it later but I thought the points you paraphrased were interesting. I work in a really intense area - in a trial firm. Being a trial lawyer is super challenging but what amazes me is my lack of mom-peers. I am THE ONLY mom attorney at my firm. There are only three other female attorney (firm of 25). Almost all the partners have kids and one or two of the male associates have kids but there is no precedent here when it comes to maternity leave/family flex-time. When I have my next kid, I will be the first attorney in the firm's ten year history to be pregnant. It's kind of scary but also kind of awesome. Hopefully I can set a good example and show my peers that being a mom is not a handicap when it comes to work but adds some diversity and new perspective to the firm. Attorneys often come to me to ask how much a mom would value certain injuries/claims.

    I let opportunities pass me by often but I don't regret it for a second. I'm happy to be barely hanging on with my work-load, billable hours, family and commute. I'd like to gain respect by doing great work on the projects I have (even if they are not prestigious or grand) and not spread myself too thin so that I drop the ball at work or at home. I'm ok with that. I do hear you though on holding back advise or suggestions for fear of being wrong. I always get nervous being on conference calls but I need to speak up. I like your goal of saying something on each conference call. It's important to establish yourself as a confident and knowledgable presence at the firm even if you might be wrong on occassion. We need to be advocates for ourselves!

  10. Thanks for posting this. The last message resonated with me too. I am also guilty of "leaving before you leave", but we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves. Finding balance is tricky.

    I left BigLaw after 8 years. My daughter was 18 mos. old and I was truly unhappy with sacrificing my time with her (I never got home from work before 8-10pm - working later from home usually not an option due to client expectations and lack of control in scheduling) to spend my time in an environment which felt like drudgery 75% of the time. The carrot of partnership didn't seem like a carrot to me: at this NY firm, it was still easily 2-5 years away and then simply more of the same (with a title and more money). I was certain that I wanted to downgrade, to work part-time, to have that time with family. I joined the government, did not sit at the table, and leaned back. (To be fair, this not sitting at the table business is partly a government thing. I ALWAYS sat at the table while in private practice, and it drove me CRAZY to be muzzled in meetings because I wasn't high enough in the hierarchy to speak). I dealt with this by focusing on my family. On how it was never a problem to stay home with a sick child. Never a problem to leave the office at 6 to pick her up from daycare. Never an expectation of working evenings or weekends. No blackberry, no 24/7. I had a second child, caught my breath after maternity leave, and wow! Sandberg captured exactly how I felt. Promotions happened while I was away, and I felt so under-employed, bitter even toward former colleagues who were making partner at their firms, enjoying career success. Working part-time was now a possibility, but would mean leaning back further. Would part-time make me happier? My husband (a very supportive partner) told me I was insane to think about part-time. It wasn't in my character--and he was so right.

    With difficulty I manuevered myself into a promotion within this government agency(requiring virtually private sector hours), and then made a horizontal move to a temporary position at a different agency that is a serious step up in visibility.

    I have been thinking about what next. No matter how much I do truly want balance in my life, and want to spend that time with my family, I just don't have it in me to lean back and sit on the sidelines. Above all government (in my experience) requires the patience to wait it out and slowing inch your way up (or worse yet, the alternative: easily getting stuck because ability is not always so prized--it can be threatening to higher-ups). I have surprised myself by coming around to the view (with my husband's support) that it's probably time for me to leave government and go back to the private sector, whether it's a firm or in-house.

    Ironically, when I left BigLaw, a recruiter I was working with thought that going to this government agency was a brilliant career move, and would make me more marketable upon my return to the private sector. At the time, I thought: typical recruiter: he does not GET that I want a quality of life change, he only sees the $$$ (and his cut of the $$$). Irony that I'm now hoping that he was correct!

  11. Am I the only one who thinks it's a little ironic that she refers to her daughter as a three year old in the beginning and a two year old at the end?

    I know she's not trying to teach women how to "have it all" or balance things well, but that's actually why I find her talk less than revolutionary. It seems pretty self-evident that being very involved in every aspect of your job and always pushing for the next advancement will help a woman do better in her career, but that doesn't always correlate with overall satisfaction or finding the right career to fit the other needs in your life.

    I think "leaving before you leave" is the piece of advice I agree with the least...I agree that if you want to work, you want a job that is interesting and challenging when you are away from your family to do it. But there has to be a balance still, and searching out a career that has fewer time requirements or extra-curricular demands can allow a woman to avoid burn-out. I think for every person that only gets a flexible opportunity or great in-house job because they were a rock star in a super-demanding job, there is someone else who doesn't know when to stop collecting gold stars, take a step back and admit that they don't always need to take the best career opportunities at the cost of putting off their life. The extreme situation of a single woman selling herself short early on because she may have kids one day is both sad and laughable. But I think it absolutely makes sense to evaluate your priorities and what you want before picking a career path. If you know that you want a family and envision yourself spending lots of time at home, maybe you shouldn't go to law school, or enter a profession that is known to have rigid, demanding schedules.

    One thing that I completely related to was the idea that men attribute success to themselves, while women place the credit with external factors. I noticed in my class of first year associates that the men always seem to just get everything, and understand what is going on at a high level. They could have a conversation with the partners about the merits of different theories applicable to a matter they were working on when I would be waaaay too intimidated to open my mouth for fear of sounding like an idiot. But once I worked with those guys, I realized that they knew as little as I did, if that much. They were just much better at playing it off. And I don't think it was even conscious, I think they just have that innate confidence. Almost all of the female associates constantly seek reassurance that they're doing something correctly, divert compliments and joke about "just trying to avoid getting fired." No wonder supervisors end up promoting or giving good reviews to men. And if the pattern holds true, it's the women themselves who drive themselves out assuming they're not good enough or can't compete, not supervisors giving them poor reviews.

    Thanks for posting the video and giving your thoughts on it. Certainly a thought-provoking conversation, even if we all take away different messages.

  12. Haha, I think if CM seized anything else at this point, a baby would fall out! I dunno how she does it all.

    Definitely an interesting article, and does make me consider whether I'm limiting myself in my career. Not that I have much control over my career these days, but the 70-hour work weeks have certainly been a consideration for me in not papering the town with my resume, when I am comfortably skating along with what I'm doing now at my own pace.

    Confidence is a huge problem for me, but I don't know that it is a gender thing. In some ways, probably, but I think it also came from a lifetime of being smarter than the average bear, and suddenly in law school... not so much. The ol' ego takes a huge beating, kills the confidence.