Silicon Valley’s superwoman should stop writing and start campaigning (Running in Heels)

Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Jolanda Flubacher)

Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Jolanda Flubacher)

It might be when she talks about sauntering up to her Google bosses and demanding a better parking space that Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women starts to rankle. Or perhaps it’s the anecdote about finding nits in her children’s scalp en route to a business meeting – while on eBay’s private jet – that makes your blood boil, just a little. Or the way that each interview she’s done has been full of diversions – about being a geek, breaking down at work, or being terrible at walking in high heels – that are clearly designed to prove how much of an everywoman she is but instead come across as characteristics of the modern feminist icon that her publicist has selected straight from central casting. Here she is: Silicon Valley superwoman, Facebook’s second-most recognisable face, well-coiffed with the perfect family to boot, plus  a litany of career successes under her belt – and all before her 45th birthday. And she’s telling all the other women out there that it’s easy to be just like her; they’ve merely got to be more assertive.

Sandberg discussing her book Lean In…

To be fair to Sandberg, that’s a slightly narrow interpretation of her new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which is being marketed as something of a manifesto for the 20th century career woman. In the extracts and interviews with her I’ve read so far (of which there have been several – her marketing team needs a rise), her advice follows a familiar thread. Women, she explains, need to be less afraid of success and learn to appreciate achievement as the other half do.

Shesays: “Women internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives-the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men-and pull back when we should lean in.” Sandberg isn’t wrong, and her advice is far more tolerable and constructive than that of women who have broken through the glass ceiling and can’t see why everyone else is making such a fuss about it. She’s absolutely spot on when she talks about the phenomenon of women feeling like “frauds” when they are successful, rather than simply soaking up praise for a job well done. Her suggestion that women hold themselves back rings true; in my own experience, it’s noticeable how male writers are usually willing to pitch opinion pieces out of the blue, while female writers seem surprised that they might be able to float an idea. They wait to be asked, a trend that Sandberg acknowledges, in a way that men simply don’t.

Of the women I know – intelligent, capable and qualified twenty-somethings with bright careers ahead – many speak of the very concerns Sandberg raises. They confess to feeling inadequate, as if they were imposters in their roles, to believing that they need to better than the best just to keep up with their (mostly male) colleagues. Most assume that the myth of “having it all,” sold to us during our school years, is just that, that something, somewhere, will have to give.

The problem isn’t that her advice is unwelcome, unreasonable, or even that she’s stating the obvious. It’s that, ultimately, it’s meaningless. Sandberg is correct that pregnant women should get better parking spaces; that we should be demanding equal pay, and the appreciation men in the workplace take as their birthright. But it’s hardly a revelation – we’ve known for years that we should be heeding these feminist rallying cries. The problem is that we don’t. We haven’t yet, and it’s unlikely enough of us will.

This week Sandberg – former chief of staff to a US treasury secretary – told The Times: “really, honestly, I’m not going into politics.” Perhaps she’s just fooling us, or even herself. Let’s hope so. For if more women like Sandberg – the ones that have “leaned in to overcome their fears and sit at the table – were in politics, maybe some of what she is urging would take effect. If Sandberg could secure that parking space with minimal heartache, just imagine what she could do as a politician if she took on businesses over maternity rights or flexible working. Surely in the fight for more affordable childcare, someone like Sandberg should be leading the charge?

Ultimately, as she admits “the blunt truth is that men still run the world”. No amount of well-meaning advice is going to change the fact that this is, for many, a reality. Books and words advocating equality are great. But they would be far more valuable if she turned them into action.

This post originally appeared on Running in Heels.


We need more people to say no to Rihanna’s video

It has the making of a great comedy. A global celebrity arrives on a rural farm to film her latest music video, but her choice of attire (namely, a fancy red bra, and then apparently no bra at all) is too much for his countrified, prudish sensibilities. So he kicks her, and her glamorous associates, off his field.

In the film version, the pop star would return and convince the small-minded country folk that her modern city ways are no cause for controversy. Ultimately, he’d come round and probably even make a cameo appearance in the video.

In reality, it didn’t end that way. When Alan Graham, 61, of Clandeboye in Northern Ireland, saw just how risqué Rihanna’s video shout was, he asked her to pack up her things. Reports the Telegraph:

“If someone wants to borrow my field and things become inappropriate, then I say, ‘Enough is enough. I wish no ill will against Rihanna and her friends. Perhaps they could acquaint themselves with a greater G-d.”

Here’s the thing. Mr Graham should not be painted as the villain of this piece. He might have said no for religious reasons, but that’s beside the point.

Precisely what is it about Rihanna’s lyrics – or Beyonce’s, or Katy Perry’s or any other female pop star de jour – that requires them to be sung without clothes on?

I’m no prude – a bikini is fine on the beach or by a pool – but I’m also not of the school that this represents any kind of female empowerment. And I can’t imagine the video director or her record company are thinking “down with sexism” when they encourage her to make these videos.

When did we get to the stage that a video like this was acceptable from a mainstream artist?

Rihanna has fans all over the world, and plenty of them are young girls (and indeed young boys, being taught that this is what women should look like and how they should behave). What’s her message? That her music isn’t good enough on its own, so she needs to cavort-around half naked to make up for it?

Or that she’s so multi-talented she can sing, dance and act like a pole dancer?

Telling young girls that it’s OK – desirable, even – to sell your talent with your body? Not exactly a Suffragette hunger strike, now.

My teachers always said everything men could do, women could do too. But I don’t think they meant taking our shirts off in public.

Christine Largarde: Well done, little lady

Let’s discuss something that would never happen.

Say Mexico’s Agustín Carstens had been chosen as the new head of the International Monetary Fund. Would we have seen a nice graphic about other influential men?

Of course not. After all, there are just too many to count.

Nobody would even suggest it.

But The Times greeted Christine Largarde’s selection as Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s successor with oodles of praise for the new “First lady of finance” and a delightful sidebar of other “Women at the top”. Incidentally, all they could come up with was Hillary, Oprah, Angela Merkel and Irene Rosenfeld.

Well done, little lady, screamed this article and many others. You’ve overcome all the obstacles, risen against the odds.

You can wear a bra and still rule the world. You go girl.

Now, I’m well aware Lagarde is the first woman in charge of one of the post-war financial institutions. That is an achievement, and it’s not wrong to discuss the implications for the so-called glass ceiling.

Still. There’s no need to be quite so patronising about it.

There’s no need to mark the success of one individual, who happens to be female, by making her a poster child for every other successful woman out there.

Can’t we judge each one on their own merit, and acknowledge that just as some will succeed, others will fail. And that their gender has nothing to do with that.

Because if the glass ceiling had really and truly been smashed, we wouldn’t need a list of successful women just like Christine to illustrate it.

Here’s not to you, Mrs Robinson

It’s been a bad week for political wives.

In Northern Ireland, Mrs. Robinson jokes are enjoying a comeback following the revelations about the First Minister’s spouse Iris and her affair with a teenager.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, former presidential candidate John Edwards’ wife Elizabeth has been outed in a new book on the 2008 campaign as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.” 

Today in the Times though, Melanie Reid struck up a defence for Iris Robinson, calling on us to “be celebrating Iris for her modernity, her spirit, her black lacy underwear and her sheer chutzpah in breaking centuries of convention.”

Reid said she is “a feminist icon” for breaking the mould, and went as far as to say ‘Atta girl”.

Excuse me? Let’s just refresh. Leaving aside the alleged political misconduct, this is Reid’s description of a woman in her mid sixties who has had three affairs, one with someone young enough to be her grandson. The two apparently got close after the boy’s father died.

Reid’s stance – that Iris is some 2010 incarnation of girl power – is appalling. Feminism is many things, but it is not this.

If Iris was a man, we would, quite rightly, be railing against a pervy middle-aged politician for sleazy antics with a teen.

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