More Ways Women Sabotage Themselves

Sheryl Sandberg is right. It's time for women to take a look at themselves

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I’m tired of listening to women who have it all tell a new generation of daughters that it was all a mistake. That they shouldn’t set the bar so high. That they cannot have it all.

They’re wrong. And they’re not remotely helpful.

What makes me qualified to talk about this? I’ve managed a successful career in sexist workplaces and have broken my share of glass ceilings. I’ve raised two wonderful feminist and otherwise morally good sons. I’ve successfully managed personal relationships, some to their natural conclusions. I have never let a setback keep me down. (I disagree with Sandberg’s “no failures” rule, as I believe we have much to learn from heartbreak and healing.) And I’m reinventing success with the best of them.

(MORE: TIME’s Cover Story, “Confidence Woman”)

So I’m with Sheryl Sandberg. Let’s first dispense with her critics’ favorite tropes:

1. She’s rich, white and privileged, so what does she know? Note that when rich, privileged, white (or black or Hispanic) men write books about how you too can attain success, no one says that their achievements disqualify them as authorities. How do we think Sandberg got rich? She worked hard. She put herself in the right place at the right time. She didn’t let anyone get in her face. She found a mate who supported her ambitions. Her journey provides a terrific role model — for some of us. There are never going to be one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems women face in our sexist world — or any problem, for that matter. So let’s stop using that as an excuse not to do some hard listening.

2. She’s blaming the victims. Why isn’t she talking about government-subsidized day-care programs and the enforcement of laws that equalize pay — two hugely important issues? Because life is full of conversation, and Sandberg has something else to add: it is time for women to look at how they might be sabotaging themselves.

(MORE: Sandberg Exclusive Excerpt: ‘Why I Want Women to Lean In’)

First, what do we mean by “having it all”? I think it means having work and love, the two most important things in life. But what started as a slogan of good cheer and hope has become a lead weight of existential anxiety. Women won’t be able to have all of everything at the same time — no one can — but we can live lives rich in variety, broad in range and high in opportunity. We can be world changers, game changers and diaper changers, just the way men can be. It is much too soon to give up on the ambitions of my generation of feminists.

And so to add to Sandberg’s helpful advice about the workplace, here are a few other things I’ve learned along the way:

Sometimes a Mistake Is Just a Mistake. Women make dumb mistakes at every stage of our lives. Men do too, by the way. But you still have to stay in the game. Say we’ve established careers and raised children. Then we decide to take jobs that require a grueling amount of travel. We move to cities far from our families, like Anne-Marie Slaughter did. And we miss them, they miss us, and the wheels start to fall off the home carriage. This surprises us? 

(MORE: Forget About Mentors — Women Need Sponsors)

This isn’t an example of not having it all or a lesson in why we should give up. It is simply a lousy long-term career choice that’s easily rectified. Sometimes we fail to appreciate the consequences of life-altering decisions — I made this mistake early in my family’s life. But this doesn’t demonstrate that it is impossible to have brilliant careers and raise families.

Yes. Top corporate positions are still disproportionately filled by men, but not necessarily because women are being kept out. Many women have chosen to make compromises along the way — and decided that the old-white-male definition of success (career above all) isn’t necessarily theirs. And that’s fine. Until, of course, it isn’t — but don’t blame the system when that happens.

Appearances Matter. If I saw it once, I saw it a thousand times: young women in my office asking me tearfully why they weren’t being taken seriously by their male colleagues. In some cases, the answer was, That guy is an ass and needs to be straightened out. But in so many cases, sadly, as I listened, I watched a young woman squirming in a skirt that was so short I could see her underwear, a top so tight and cropped that she was spilling out of it, heels so high she tottered to her chair.

(MORERead TIME’s complete coverage on Sheryl Sandberg)

If you think I exaggerate, just spend 20 minutes near the lobby of any major corporation at lunchtime and watch. Or, as recently happened to me, spend some time in the lobby of the Washington Hilton during one or another of the dozens of young-national-leaders meetings and watch the young women convening. The fashion parade was shocking and sad. I have asked these women, Why do you think a highly sexualized presentation of self is appropriate? Surprisingly, I always got what I think of as a feminist’s twisted sister of an answer: because I am liberated to dress any way I want. Because I can be sexy and smart. Because I shouldn’t be judged on my appearance.

There isn’t time to go into the thousand ways this is deeply misguided — and how it derails many women’s careers at the outset. Just for a moment, dwell on the metaphor of thousands of young women strapping their feet into shoes that make it comically difficult for them to move forward at all, to say nothing of keeping pace. Go ahead, be sexy. Make everyone’s day. But don’t expect to be taken seriously. In this, as in so many areas of life, compartmentalization is a key survival tactic. There is a time and place for showing it all. It is called the cocktail hour.

Do the Work. How many women do I know who, having opted completely out of the workplace, (including not doing any serious board or community work) because they could be supported by husbands or  wanted to focus entirely on their families — which is fine, of course, and their business — now want into the workplace? Or are forced to get in because they are facing a divorce or their husbands have lost their jobs?

Many feel that the lack of warm welcome with which they are greeted at the human resources department, at age 45, is proof of how women cannot have it all. They are penalized for having been mothers.

(MORE: Judith Warner: Why Sandberg Matters for Real Women)

No. They are just starting over. They’ve decided to take work and love sequentially. But because they’ve been CEO of their homes, many midlife returners feel they should be hired straight into the corner office. But the only way to start at the top is the start your own company.

Work is … work. We log the hours. We log the years. We learn, we grow, we develop skills and knowledge. Those top corporate positions are still difficult for women to break into — but not necessarily because we’re being kept out. We still have to do the work to get there.

(MORE: The Pay Gap Is Not as Bad as You (and Sheryl Sandberg) Think)

Resilience Above All. I used to think smarts reigned until I watched smart people flame out. Then I thought it was only about connections. That, too, had serious limits. So does luck. When you get right down to it, success in life is about resilience. Every life well-lived is full of failures, both major and minor.

What matters most is how we respond to setback, to challenge, to stress and strain. Being resilient often means finding other paths, other means to the same goal. We do the younger generation a huge disservice by implying that there is a “right” and “wrong” path to success.

If the goal is work and love — having it all — then do what you have to do to protect both those things and be nimble about the intricate ballet of daily life as you balance the demands of both.

(MORE: Caitlin Flanagan: What About the Children?)

Don’t Waste Time Pushing the String. Life is often a string, when it is not a bowl of spaghetti. Pushing on one end of a piece of string does not produce forward movement on the other end. Jobs often become stringy; there are times when no matter how how much willpower or brute force you put into that stringy situation, you simply aren’t going to get ahead. Women are often loyal to a fault; we can be reluctant to acknowledge that things aren’t going to get better. So don’t waste time pushing the string. Move on.

You want to be in front. Pulling. That’s why leaning in is so important. Engage. And stay engaged. Make choices, make mistakes, make moves. Practice resilience. Love. Work. Play. Enjoy, and weep bitter tears. That’s life. We’ve never had it so good. And it is only getting better.

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Sheryl Sandberg

12 comments
Helena_
Helena_

I am not sure if I can take this article seriously. It is aimed to women that do not know that using mini skirts and high heels will affect their image at the office. Are there so many of them??

Dress accordingly, keep your knowledge up to date? Please tell me something new.

I entered here expecting more insight. For years I have worked endlessly, never doubted my capabilities, dressed accordingly to my position and kept my knowledge up to date. Still, I have to suffer every day at the workplace and my bosses overlook my achievements. If a guy does it, he is great. If it is me, then maybe the initial planning was too conservative and this is why I am bringing a huge increase in benefits. 

If people do not want to acknowledge you, they will not do it. When you are a young attractive woman, not even knowledge, a suit and a tough face will help you. Well, we still need to make ends meet and that makes the situation more dramatic.

Lalala
Lalala

You pity party pooper you lol.  About time someone told the truth. Plus one other factor, not everyone agrees with what "having it all" is anyway.  So when it comes to life, YMMV, and that's true for men and women alike. 

FannelleFromNewyork
FannelleFromNewyork

Women could have it all if the world would allow them it.   The problem is that society, men and women are all not willing to change.  When everyone desperately clings to the roles of the past, nothing will change.  We should have more men taking maternity leaves and DEMANDING that they can!  Women should not cling so closely to the idea that "mother knows best".  She may know a lot but some men actually do know what to do with children and housework.   And if a man does not know, she should be willing to show him and he should be willing to do it.  Lets all help each other out and consider the feelings of everyone.  They maybe be could begin to get along.

drsuz
drsuz

The cover photo of Ms. Sandberg on Time magazine says a lot.  A successful woman is shown in a standing posture that depicts absolute instability, insecurity, with twisted legs and an easy push-over literally.  Why are women, especially when we are talking about successful women, frequently still shown in weak postures/gestures?  A man would never be shown as such .  Non-verbal communication makes up a large amount of communication and women need to be shown in more confident postures.  

Also, does anyone notice how the male standard of androcentricity pervades our language.  The word"guy" is a slang word for a "male"; yet today in American speech habits, women who are not "guys" are routinely, matter-of-factly called "guys".  Androcentric culture persists in keeping women off balance in photos (as in this Time magazine cover), as well as invisible, nameless, unimportant in the language.  Never would a male, a male guy be called a gal.

  What does this do to undermine the confidence of a young woman to be called "guy", like she doesn't exist?  This is a form of male supremacy, of all colors.  If there was equality, male guys would not be offended if they were called "gals".  And it would make more sense as the female is the template, the standard in the real natural world.  All humans start out female.  That's why males have nipples.  Their ovaries descend becoming testes, (for easier sperm control)  and their uterus shrivels up to remain as the prostate, etc.

rchdw1
rchdw1

There are no equal rights, so let’s stop pretending.

Where is the man’s right to take a couple of years off work and bring a new born child into the world.

Where is the man’s right to demand paternity pay and spend 6-12 months at home taking care of his new born.

Where is the man’s right to decide unilaterally to do that solo, and have his partner foot the bill under court order.

When are men going to be able to breast feed their new born ?

Let’s be thankful for all the incredible technological inventions men have created. Let’s be thankful for all the gallant young men that died young and gruesome deaths, fighting to keep the world free from dictators like Hitler and Po Pot. Let’s remember that through all history women and children come first.

There was and is still a social contract between men and women. For thousands of years until only a few decades ago, men have provided the protection and provisions for their women and families, whilst women have provided the nurture and care. Men sorted out the technological obstacles, did the heavy lifting so to speak, while women took care of social side of things.

Now look at the world. Look at all the inventions men have made to solve all the problems in their male world. Technologically, physically, most obstacles have been over come or soon will be.

On the social side however humanity is worse than ever. More single parent families, more divorces, more drug abuse, crime, gangs, alcoholism, complete decay of the family unit and so on. So let’s ask women, while they demand expensive romantic weddings at the same time as barging into a man’s world on an equal footing, and filing for 70% of all divorces :

What have females of humanity have done for society in the last oh, two thousand years or so.

Technologically we’re miles ahead, (thanks guys) socially we are the same old savages (girls ?)

ragingleftie
ragingleftie

It's like women have to work twice as hard to only get half of the recognition. Women shouldn't have to work twice as hard - we deserve equality completely.

Elissa
Elissa

I think the author fails to understand one of the fundamental contradictions existing for young women looking to move up in the business world today. She begins by saying: 

I’m tired of listening to women who have it all tell a new generation of daughters that it was all a mistake. That they shouldn’t set the bar so high. That they cannot have it all. They’re wrong. And they’re not remotely helpful.

The issue women face today, and one which Sandberg has directly acknowledged, along with women like Ann-Marie Slaughter, is that yes, women can work harder than men to "have it all" - raise a family and pursue a successful career, but they shouldn't have to. Successful women Browning who blindly encourage those of a younger generation to "work just as hard as I did!" are reinforcing the inequality women face in both the business world and society. 



TakingUpSpace
TakingUpSpace

Re: "...I watched a young woman squirming in a skirt that was so short I could see her underwear, a top so tight and cropped that she was spilling out of it, heels so high she tottered to her chair."

Browning of all people ought to realize that even many of the women who are moving up like to signal their availability or simply display their sexual attractiveness. Sometimes these women overdo it. Just as some men "come on" too strong with their pick-up lines, some women “attract too strongly” by wearing too much makeup or too little clothing. This is explained in a look at the sexes' most destructive behavioral difference, "The Sexual Harassment Quagmire" at http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/the-sexual-harassment-quagmire/

Men and women won't change much until both sexes stop expecting only men to be primary providers who give their spouses unrequited options, and both sexes stop expecting men to be the initiator of male-female relationships.

The sexes different behaviors in these two areas are responsible for probably 90 percent of the differences between the sexes.




Lalala
Lalala

@FannelleFromNewyork Much of this stuff is media generated. In the real world, at least where I live, men and women do help each other out.

Lalala
Lalala

@drsuz If the woman was shown in a "strong" posture, she's still get criticized. Look at the way people criticized the late Margaret Thatcher and there was nothing 'weak' about her.  Even feminists feel threatened by truly strong images of women. Naomi Wolf attacked Katy Perry for her portrayal as a female Marine in her "Part of Me" video.  

Lalala
Lalala

@rchdw1 As for our question What have females of humanity have done for society in the last oh, two thousand years or so"...I would strongly suggest you google "women's history" and get educated! The greatest thing was when the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, the saviour of the World!  So there!

Lalala
Lalala

@rchdw1What's with this babbling? Why only credit men and dismiss women? How about a little balance?.Men and women alike have done great things and nefarious things.  As for blaming only single parent families for everything that's wrong in the world, well that's total crap.  Building up men's egos by keeping women down isn't the answer to solving the world's social problems. There are two parent families who have kids that are messed up, too...and plenty of people who raise children on their own in one parent families and their kids turn out fine. I was one of those kids.. I was raised by a hardworking and practical single mom who made sure to keep me and a sister in school and kept us away from drugs, gangs and pregnancy! I went on to serve an enlistment in the USMC, plus I also earned TWO BA degrees while working and raising my child as a divorced mom because my ex-hubby decided the grass was greener on the other side! My daughter is now 30, an entrepreneur, and is engaged to a wonderful man who is more of a dad to my grandson than his waste-of-space biological father whom my daughter very wisely kicked to the curb! Fact of the matter is that MOST single parents are not monsters. We are normal hardworking people who do the best we can and so we don't need BS criticism from the the self-righteous  judmental likes of you!